Nonprofit, independent journalism. Supported by readers.


COVID-19, sick leave and unemployment insurance in Minnesota: What workers need to know

Here are some answers to questions about unemployment, sick leave and what governments are doing to help people who may lose jobs or money due to coronavirus.

REUTERS/Lucas Jackson

Sports games and other large events are shutting down across Minnesota in response to the spread of novel coronavirus while colleges and universities are closing campuses to students. Restaurants and other businesses may begin to close as well, if the Seattle area’s experience is any guide. The moves could bolster public health but also lead to layoffs. Here are some answers to questions about unemployment, sick leave and what state government is doing to help people who may lose jobs or money due to COVID-19.

Can employees use sick leave if they’re quarantined but not showing symptoms?

This may vary depending on where you work or live. There is no state or national law requiring employers to offer paid sick leave. But some local governments do have such policies, including Minneapolis, St. Paul and Duluth.

A spokeswoman for the City of Minneapolis didn’t say whether quarantined people can use its sick and safe leave ordinance, though the policy covers absences for illness, medical treatment and “preventative care” for a worker or their family. A COVID-19 fact-sheet posted by the City of Duluth says workers can use sick time for “medical diagnosis, care, treatment, or preventative measures” for themselves or a family member.

Article continues after advertisement

State employees should report to work unless directed otherwise by a health care provider or the state Department of Health, says online guidance from the Minnesota Management and Budget office. Employees who are ill can use sick leave policies for state employees. If they run out of accrued sick time, absences caused by COVID-19 are covered under a paid administrative leave policy. (The Minnesota Association of Professional Employees union has asked state officials to let workers use sick time if schools or care facilities are closed and for extra leave time in case of quarantine, school closure, or loss of care for a family member.)

A Target spokeswoman said the company has waived an absenteeism policy for certain employees who can’t work because of school or daycare closures, or who stay home because they have flu-like symptoms. People under mandatory quarantine will get 14 days of pay, and those who contract the coronavirus will get up to 14 days pay. 

Cargill said it’s making efforts to accommodate people impacted by COVID-19 and noted they have sick leave benefits. But a spokesman for the company didn’t specifically address those in quarantine. A Medtronic spokesman said all employees who are able to work from home should do so, starting March 16. Those “otherwise required to remain home” will be compensated, the spokesman said.

Will the Legislature pass any new sick leave laws?

House Democrats have long tried to pass a statewide sick and safe time law, but have been opposed by the Republican-led Senate and business groups that worry it will add costs and regulations for employers.

State Rep. Mohamud Noor
State Rep. Mohamud Noor
But Democrats this week rolled out a more narrow proposal by Rep. Mohamud Noor, DFL-Minneapolis, that requires businesses offering sick leave to cover quarantine measures or temporary closure of a business because of a disease outbreak. 

Noor’s bill would also let workers who are quarantined, sick, or out of work temporarily because of COVID-19 collect unemployment insurance benefits without seeking employment. That way, if they’re sick or quarantined, they can access benefits easier and with less risk of spreading illness.

“This is more about public safety, in order to ensure the individuals can continue to receive income,” Noor told reporters on Wednesday.

Article continues after advertisement

Gov. Tim Walz said the unemployment insurance measure was the type of bill he thinks lawmakers should focus on this session outside of top priorities like passing a supplemental budget.

Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, a Nisswa Republican, told reporters Friday that outside of his push for tax cuts and negotiating other big measures like a construction bonding bill, he’s focused on making sure public health departments have proper funding and support, rather than trying to pass new employment laws. “At this point in time I’m not moving forward with any of those things,” especially as lawmakers consider a truncated or narrowed legislative session in light of the pandemic, Gazelka said.

How else is the state considering helping people with economic challenges due to COVID-19?

State Rep. Jim Davnie
State Rep. Jim Davnie
Besides Noor’s measure, state Rep. Jim Davnie, DFL-Minneapolis, introduced a bill that would ensure hourly school workers like bus drivers are paid if schools are closed, if they’re infected or sent home because they’re deemed as non-essential employees. Teachers typically are paid on days when school is canceled, said House Speaker Melissa Hortman, DFL-Brooklyn Park.

State Rep. Jay Xiong, DFL-St. Paul, is sponsoring a measure that aimed at preventing price gouging for goods like gasoline, medical supplies, building materials and food when the state has declared an emergency.

The Department of Employment and Economic Development (DEED), which administers unemployment insurance, is trying to eliminate a week-long waiting period for benefits to kick in and take steps to prevent employers from facing big charges if a wave of employees need to take a leave of absence due to COVID-19.

Unemployment insurance is funded through a payroll tax on employers. The money is put into a trust fund that can only be used to pay benefits to unemployed workers.

If layoffs start, how do I access state unemployment insurance?

When Minnesotans are fired or laid off, many can apply for unemployment insurance. But there are limitations. You must be legally authorized to work in the U.S., be unemployed or work substantially fewer hours through no fault of your own, and you must actively seek “suitable employment” each week. (Though Noor’s bill tweaking unemployment law during outbreaks could alter this requirement.) Benefits are based on the gross wages you earned from all employers during a recent 52-week period.

Additionally, you can only accept benefits if you are able and willing to accept work if offered.  People who are laid off temporarily or have hours cut below 32 hours per week can also apply for unemployment.

Can that unemployment insurance fund handle a wave of layoffs?

Steve Grove, the DEED commissioner, said the trust fund “is in really good shape” and currently has roughly $1.5 billion. Grove told reporters the state only spent $800 million from the trust fund last year and so he doesn’t anticipate needing to ask for money from the Legislature to supplement the existing cash.

If someone is fired because they miss work because they are quarantined or choose to stay home out of concern for spreading COVID-19, are they eligible for unemployment insurance?

Unemployment insurance is not available to people fired because of conduct that “seriously violates standards of behavior the employer has the right to reasonably expect,” says the DEED website. That includes “continued, unexcused absences.” Still, Grove said the program is meant to cover workers “who have to stay home through no fault of their own.”

On Friday, Walz said if there’s no protection for employees fired because they were ordered to stay home or chose to miss work out of concern for COVID-19 without employer consent, “there darn sure should be.” He asked employers to “cooperate” with health guidance and not penalize workers for taking precautions. “I know this is a tough situation for everyone,” Walz said. “But from a public health standpoint, we cannot have people making the decision to go to work (when sick) based on the salary that’s there.”