Minnesota would have healthier babies, more productive workers and better overall public health if every employer granted paid family and sick leave, according to a new study that is expected to provide a tail wind for proposals moving through the 2015 Legislature.

The Minnesota Health Department white paper also found that workers most likely to need paid leave — low-income families with children — are least likely to have it.

State Health Commissioner Dr. Edward Ehlinger said the report casts sick leave and family leave in a new light — not as personal or economic benefits, but as social policies that promote public health. Employees with paid sick leave are less likely to go to work sick and spread germs, for example, and children perform better in school when their parents have access to paid leave, the study found.

Ben Gerber, manager of labor and management policy at the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce, took a different view. In a statement, he said his association disagrees that employers of all sizes should have to provide the same kind of benefits.

“Mandating benefits hinders employers’ flexibility to deal with individual employee circumstances and may ignore the realities of their particular industry,” he said. “[It’s] especially onerous and troublesome for small employers.”

Under legislation proposed by Rep. Ryan Winkler, DFL-Golden Valley, Minnesota employees and employers would pay about $56 per worker per year into an insurance pool that would provide all with access to paid leave. The amount any person could be paid would be capped at six weeks. His legislation has the support of Gov. Mark Dayton and is expected to receive committee hearings in the next two weeks.

Winkler said he’s concerned that the fastest growing part of the state’s economy, the service sector, is where people have the least access to paid leave.

“More and more Minnesota families are not getting access to this basic job and family protection,” he said. “There is a conflict between the way we expect people to work, and their family obligations.”

Under current federal law, covered employees can take unpaid time off from work to care for themselves or family members, including new children — if they can afford to.

Across private industry, about 12 percent of Americans have access to paid family leave, according to recent surveys. But that rate drops to 5 percent in the sector’s lowest wage quartile and jumps to 21 percent for the highest quartile.

For low-income Americans, Ehlinger said, that often means losing pay or going to work sick.

Forms of mandatory paid sick leave have been adopted by a number of cities and states, including San Francisco and Washington, D.C., and Connecticut and Massachusetts (where the law takes effect July 1). In Minnesota, St. Paul and Brooklyn Park provide paid parental leave for city employees. The Obama administration is supporting federal legislation requiring companies with more than 15 employees to accrue paid leave for illness or sick children.

The Health Department study found that for families with newborns, paid family leave improves a mother’s post-birth mental and physical health, increases the rate of breast-feeding and lowers rates of infant mortality.

It also found that lack of access to paid sick leave could affect the rate of foodborne illness; between 2004 and 2014, at least 208 outbreaks were linked to employees who showed up to work sick.

The full white paper can be found at health.state.mn.us.

 

Marion Renault is a University of Minnesota student on assignment for the Star Tribune.