All Minnesota workers could take paid leave under the DFL plan

Alyshia Jackson bent to wring out her sodden mop, then, with sweeping motions, dragged it across the concrete lobby floor of a St. Paul apartment building.

It’s the kind of movement that caused complications in the weeks after her gallbladder removal surgery in September, forcing her to take more time off work to recover. The small business owner and single mother is still catching up on the credit card debt she racked up.

“I didn’t have any support,” Jackson said. “Do I close my doors and take care of my health or do I keep showing up and sabotaging my recovery?”

She is among Minnesotans calling for a state-paid family and medical leave program. With Democrats seizing full control of state government and listing paid leave as a top priority, Minnesota is likely to join 11 other states with programs aimed at ensuring workers can care for themselves or their families without triggering a financial tailspin.

Employees may qualify for up to 12 weeks of paid leave to care for a family member, like a newborn or sick parent, as well as 12 weeks of sick leave if they get sick, under the measure lawmakers are considering.

“It will happen this year. It will be in the governor’s budget,” House Speaker Melissa Hortman, DFL-Brooklyn Park, said during a press conference last week to highlight the bill.

DFL lawmakers and Gov. Tim Walz want to use a portion of the state’s estimated $17.6 billion budget surplus to jump-start the program, Hortman said. The bill’s sponsors said they don’t have an exact figure for the initial cost, but previous estimates have been in excess of $1 billion.

After an initial infusion of surplus cash, the bill states that the program would be supported by a 0.6% premium on wages that would be channeled into a family and medical benefits insurance account.

Employees and employers would contribute to the program, the lawmakers said. Previous cost estimates have suggested that a worker making $50,000 a year would contribute about $3 a week and the employer would also spend about $3 a week, said Rep. Ruth Richardson, DFL-Mendota Heights, a sponsor of the bill.

Employers could opt out and continue to offer private plans for paid family or medical leave, or both, under the bill. They would have to seek state approval to offer the substitute plan, which would have to include at least the same benefits, protections and rights as the public program. Employers could face charges if they fail to comply with the program’s requirements.

“The way this works is to really level the playing field,” Richardson said, allowing small businesses to compete with those that can offer such programs and pooling financial risk across the state through the insurance program. She said the goal is to “ensure that everyone can have access to this no matter what they look like, what their zip code is, or who they work for.”

Some business owners, like Jackson, support the change. In his small company, 1st Class Cleaning Services, an employee needed two weeks off last spring when a relative died. The worker knew that Jackson was paying him out of pocket during that time. Later, he went to another company.

“She said, ‘I love working for you, but I don’t want to feel bad when I have sick time,'” Jackson said. “Something has to give… If I want trustworthy people, I have to be able to offer them services where they feel safe and supported.”

But many business leaders disagree with the plan.

The Minnesota Chamber of Commerce opposes the mandatory approach, said Lauryn Schothorst, the organization’s director of workplace management policy. She said that a significant number of companies already offer some form of paid leave.

“They’re doing it in a way that works for their workforce, their operations,” Schothorst said. “It doesn’t come with the same kind of risks and responsibilities of legal compliance, the paperwork, the reporting, all of those added burdens when you’re talking about complying with a law.”

The current system allows companies to tailor benefits to the needs of their workforce, potentially focusing more on reimbursement for tuition or health care costs rather than paid leave, he said.

Schothorst also expressed concern that someone could qualify for a total of up to 24 weeks of leave in a year.

Only a small percentage of workers end up taking family and medical leave in a year, said Debra Fitzpatrick of the Children’s Defense Fund, who has been driving the change. A 2019 report he worked on at the University of Minnesota estimated that 13.4% of Minnesota workers take family or medical leave annually, and that would increase to 15% with a paid leave program.

The program is not intended for people who need a few sick days, Fitzpatrick said. It’s for those who have to take seven or more days off work in situations that can have significant financial consequences for a family, she said.

Workers would need a health care provider to verify that they, or the person they care for, has a serious medical condition. A newly created Division of Family and Medical Benefits Insurance, under the state Department of Employment and Economic Development, would administer the program.

The 12 weeks of family leave could be used for more than caring for a sick loved one. Could be used for “bonding” time after the birth of a child, adoption, or foster placement with a family. Or someone could take “safety leave” if he or his family member experienced domestic abuse, sexual assault, or stalking.

The amount of money workers receive during leave would vary based on their wages; people with lower incomes get about 90% of their income and people with higher incomes about 60%, said Sen. Alice Mann, DFL-Edina.

Low-income Minnesotans disproportionately lack paid leave and have to work when sick, Hortman said.

“This is also a question of privileges,” he said. “We have the ability to fix that, and we will.”

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