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DFLers at the Capitol try to play catch-up with cities on paid leave, minimum wage

A paid sick and safe time bill introduced at the Legislature has many of the same provisions already adopted in Minneapolis, St. Paul and Duluth.

photo of minnesota capitol
The House’s paid sick and safe time proposal unlikely to make it to the governor’s desk, since the GOP-controlled Senate is not expected to hear the bill.
MinnPost photo by Walker Orenstein

The last time the DFL had the legislative clout to hold hearings on worker benefits like as paid sick leave and minimum wage hikes, the party’s lawmakers were well out in front of the issue. 

Back then, in 2014, no states and only a handful of local governments — none of them in Minnesota — had adopted measures to require employers to let workers accrue paid leave hours for when they or their family members were sick.

That has changed. As DFL-controlled House committees begin work on paid sick and safe time bills this session, lawmakers now find themselves trying to catch up with local governments, including one that is just down the hill from the Capitol. Over the last five years, three Minnesota cities have debated and adopted paid leave ordinances: Minneapolis, St. Paul and Duluth. The two larger cities have also debated and adopted minimum wage laws that will, eventually, increase wages paid in those cities to $15 and more.

On Wednesday, the House version of a paid sick and safe time bill, House File 11, had its first hearing. The bill’s chief author, Rep. John Lesch, DFL-St Paul, said the percentage of Americans without paid leave benefits has increased since he first introduced a bill in 2007, from 41 percent to 42 percent. In Minnesota, the percent of workers uncovered is 36 percent.

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“Keep in mind who these folks are,” Lesch recently told members of the House Labor Committee. “These are the people who you want to have sick leave. I’m talking about the people standing on the other side of the sneeze guard at Subway … I’m talking about childcare workers, the people taking care of your kids.”

Lesch said it is still legal to fire workers who miss work because they are sick or injured or who are caring for sick family members. That leads to what he referred to as “presenteeism” for people who go to work when they shouldn’t.

The committee heard from a variety of supporters of the legislation: a Duluth bubble tea shop owner; a college student who recalled missing middle school to care for an asthmatic brother because his parents couldn’t miss work; a nurse who described parents who couldn’t be with sick children in the hospital; and a contract construction worker who was told if she didn’t come to work sick she shouldn’t show up the next day.

“Not having paid sick time has put me in tough situations since I was a child and it still is to this day,” Raye Perez, the college student from St. Cloud, told the committee.I work two jobs to make ends meet, one in childcare and one in retail. I don’t have sick time in either of those jobs.”

The committee also heard from opponents of the bill, which include the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce, the Utility Contractors Association and the Minnesota Retailers Association. They all objected to the additional costs and regulations from the legislation, and raised concerns that a state law would interfere with existing benefits.

“We share the goal of giving Minnesotans access to the time they need to care for themselves and their loved ones,” said Lauryn Schothorst, director of labor and management policy for the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce. “Our members over time have developed practices and benefits specifically tailored to address these issues in a way that works for their operations and takes care of their employees.”

In the three cities that have their own ordinances already, Schothorst said, “many of these businesses, not just small businesses, are struggling with the costs, regulatory burdens and staffing obligations.”

What’s in the bill

The Lesch bill, which was approved by the Labor Committee and sent it to the House Government Operations Committee this week, has details and rules similar to those in the ordinances adopted in Minneapolis, St. Paul and Duluth.

It would require employers to have workers accrue one hour of paid leave for every 30 hours worked up to 48 hours of paid leave benefit per year. Leave could be banked, with up to two weeks of leave allowed to be carried over from one year to the next. To respond to concerns about summer or seasonal workers, an employee would have to be on the payroll for at least 90 days before they could take paid time off. As in the cities, the bill would also allow any employer who already offers benefits equal to or in excess of the state benefit to keep their current system.

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The bill is among the new DFL majority’s Top 10 bills (as House File 11, House Speaker Melissa Hortman says it qualifies as the caucus’ “Spinal Tap” Top 10) and Lesch said he expects it will be voted on this session and he thinks it will pass. Yet it’s unlikely to make it to the governor’s desk, since the GOP-controlled Senate is not expected to hear the bill.

Lesch said the paid leave bill wasn’t voted on when he first introduced it in 2007, when the DFL controlled the Legislature and Republican Tim Pawlenty was governor. And he lamented that it didn’t pass in 2013 and 2014, when DFL Gov. Mark Dayton was in office and the DFL held majorities in both the House and Senate.

Unlike then, however, paid leave is on a roll, having been adopted by cities across country as well as 11 states and the District of Columbia. It is already in effect in Minneapolis and St. Paul and kicks in in Duluth at the beginning of 2020.

“We now have a track record of all those places that it passed in,” Lesch said. The economic impact on businesses hasn’t met the concerns expressed as politicians elsewhere were considering them, he said.

What about the minimum wage?

The other piece of the worker rights agenda that’s been adopted in many cities — a $15 minimum wage — is not being pursued as aggressively at the Legislature as paid leave and broader issue of family and medical leave insurance, which is also on House DFLers’ Top 10 list.

Sen. John Marty, DFL-Roseville, has introduced two minimum wage bills in the Senate: SF 622 and SF 626. The bills have different phase-in schedules for large and small businesses, hitting a wage of $16 an hour for larger employers in August 2023.

Marty doesn’t expect a hearing in the GOP-controlled Senate. But he said the atmosphere and politics around the issue have changed dramatically over just the last three years as many cities and states have adopted what activists call $15 Now. “The public has been very supportive of it,” Marty said, citing ballot measures across the country that have pass easily, even in conservative states like Arkansas.

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“It is consistently a winning issue,” he said.

To the argument made against city-by-city ordinances, creating what opponents term a patchwork of regulation, Marty said the solution is to pass a statewide program. “If you’re worried about the patchwork, I’ve got a bill to take care of that,” Marty said of his bills, which he expects will be introduced next week.  

He too laments that DFLers didn’t pass issues like paid leave when they controlled all three levers of government in 2013 and 2014. “I think we’re way too timid,” he said. “We don’t think we can solve problems.”