Minnesota state government employees, recently awarded six weeks of paid leave when they become new parents, now stand to lose the benefit just months after it took effect.
Gov. Mark Dayton temporarily instituted the paid-leave plan last winter, making it available for the majority of the state's approximately 35,000 workers. But the Republican-controlled Legislature would need to vote affirmatively to make the benefit permanent, and such a vote does not appear forthcoming.
Without it, the paid leave provision will expire at the end of the legislative session in May.
DFL lawmakers in the House and Senate, aligned with the Dayton administration, have introduced bills to make the benefit permanent. They say it costs relatively little to provide time off for new parents, and argue it's an important tool for attracting and keeping top employees.
"This is an opportunity for Minnesota to be a leader, and an important first step to providing paid parental leave for all Minnesotans, no matter where they work," Lt. Gov. Tina Smith said Tuesday. She noted that major Minnesota employers including Target, Mayo Clinic and General Mills already offer paid parental leave.
But Republican committee chairs in the House and Senate have shown no interest in the DFL legislation to make the benefit permanent, with no hearings held or scheduled. They have expressed concern about the expense of the benefit, and the process by which it was initially approved.
"What I'd argue is that the governor doesn't have the authority to do this, spending state tax dollars without legislative approval," said Rep. Sarah Anderson, R-Plymouth, who chairs the House State Government Finance Committee.
Anderson has introduced her own parental leave bill, which would provide tax credits to employers with paid leave policies, or to employees who take time off for a new child but do not have paid leave from their employer. The tax credit for employees would amount to 25 percent of their lost wages for a period of up to six weeks.
President Trump voiced his support for paid family leave during his speech to Congress last week. During the campaign, Trump backed a plan that would provide new mothers six weeks of paid leave.
The Minnesota plan came into place through an unusual process. State workers' unions approved the benefit last year, months after Dayton first introduced it. Because the Legislature was out of session at that time, the proposal was sent for approval to the Legislature's Subcommittee on Employee Relations, which had 30 days to approve or reject it.
But, meeting on the last day before that deadline, the committee lacked enough members in attendance to actually hold a vote. The lack of action counted as an approval, which left Dayton able to implement the policy, pending permanent approval by lawmakers.
Now, the Legislature could either vote to extend the benefit, vote to eliminate it, or ignore the issue altogether. If lawmakers pick the third option and do nothing, the benefit automatically goes away.
At a news conference Tuesday, Sen. Susan Kent, DFL-Woodbury, and Rep. Laurie Halverson, DFL-Eagan, were flanked by state employees who have taken advantage of the new benefit, or hope to soon. The two lawmakers, who sponsored bills to extend the benefit, said state workers are stuck in limbo, hoping the benefit will still be available when they need it.
"Let's not use this legislation as a political trade-off," Kent said.
It's not clear exactly how many state workers have used Minnesota's benefit already, or plan to in the near future. The state initially estimated that about 400 to 500 workers would use the benefit each year, at a total cost of $2 million. That expense is covered by individual departments' personnel budgets, in the same way those departments would spend extra money to cover for a worker who left on medical leave.
Minnesota is one of six states that currently offer paid parental leave for state employees. California, New Jersey and Rhode Island had policies in place when Minnesota's benefit went into effect. Since then, New York and Arkansas have approved similar benefits.
Citing the spread of paid leave policies among private employers and several cities, Halverson and Kent said the state needs to find ways to hold onto qualified employees. Women under age 44 are leaving state jobs at double the total turnover rate for all state employees, they said.
Blair Sevcik, an epidemiologist with the state Department of Health, spoke to reporters while holding her infant son. She said that she's been using the paid leave benefit since giving birth in January, and that it has helped ease the mental and financial stress of bringing a new baby home.
"It has allowed me to spend this short window of time focusing on our new baby, [to] bond with him, recover from childbirth, protect him from child care center germs and establish a good breast-feeding relationship," she said.