Minnesota DFLers are intensifying efforts to adopt one of the most sweeping paid family leave policies in the country, an effort gaining wide support from labor unions and low-income groups.
Senate DFLers are pushing a more generous paid family leave than the three states that require it, mandating up to 12 weeks of paid time off for new parents or people caring for sick family members. That's double what is required in New Jersey and California; Rhode Island offers eight weeks. The measure also calls for 12 weeks of paid leave for seriously ill employees, which is less than those other states.
The political debate in Minnesota is part of a larger national battle over the government's role in mandating various types of paid leave, one that for the first time is emerging as a significant issue in the presidential campaign.
Minnesota's elected leaders are trying to balance growing concern from business leaders frustrated by increasing and overlapping mandates, with workers caring for sick relatives or newborns who say they are strained to the limit as they choose between their families and their jobs.
"Everyone is temporarily well," said Jessica Rohloff, who had to quit her job years ago to care for her ill grandmother. "Everyone is temporarily able. … At some point, this is going to be an issue for your family."
Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk, DFL-Cook, said he wants to pass a paid leave law this session, even if it is eventually scaled back from the original version.
Minnesota's challenge will be in implementing the law, which would be administered through an insurance pool that employers and workers would pay into.
The states with paid family leave laws used existing staff and data collection systems from temporary disability insurance programs to dole out the benefits. But other states, including Minnesota, don't have similar infrastructure in place, according to Vicki Shabo, vice president of the National Partnership for Women & Families.
She said Minnesota, however, has put tremendous thought into how to design a program and it wants "to create a more competitive climate to attract employees that makes it a really interesting place to potentially be … one of the first to do this from scratch."
The fight is gaining attention at the national level as Democratic presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders have proposed leave policies. Former presidential candidate Republican Marco Rubio had suggested giving tax credits to businesses that offered leave.
Proposed federal legislation would guarantee up to 12 weeks of paid time off for new parents or caregivers. But with no guarantees of congressional support, the U.S. Department of Labor has awarded millions of dollars in grants for states to study the possibility of developing and expanding paid leave programs.
Shabo said that while a national solution is needed, "the state campaigns, including the robust campaign in Minnesota, help to create the demand and show the need for the policy." She noted that state programs also allow for research on how paid leave works out.
Doug Seaton said he believes that politicians have no business telling employers to offer paid family and medical leave.
As the owner of a law firm in Edina, he resents government intrusion on his ability to negotiate benefits with employees.
Seaton's firm handles employment law, so he follows the issue closely because he represents clients on matters involving workers' benefits. But he also worries about how his own company, with a dozen lawyers and five additional employees, would fare if the state mandated paid leave.
"Politicians, most of whom have no experience signing paychecks for employees of any kind, are not in a good position to make these decisions," Seaton said. "It restricts the ability of the business to tailor its benefits to all employees in a way that makes sense."
He added that it came on top of "what employers already perceive as a very extensive and expansive set of entitlements in Minnesota."
Debra Fitzpatrick, the Center on Women and Public Policy at the University of Minnesota, presented a report to legislators earlier in March that explored how to offer paid leave in Minnesota. Her research noted that Minnesotans already take 459,259 leaves a year. While nearly three-quarters of the state's workers receive at least some pay when they take leave for family and medical reasons, employees who are lower-wage, black, Hispanic, younger, or less-educated are far less likely to receive those benefits.
She recommended replacing more of workers' wages the less they make — the lowest income employees would receive 80 percent of their wages while on leave, while higher income employees would receive 55 percent, a provision included in the Senate's proposal.
"There's been a lot of focus on disparities, particularly racial disparities, this legislative session," Fitzpatrick. "We're trying to make sure that this program doesn't reinforce" them.
Her report cited studies finding that California's paid leave program reduced the need for low-income workers to turn to public assistance and that most employers there and in New Jersey reported positive or neutral experiences with paid leave programs.
Fitzpatrick said if employers and employees split the cost of the program equally, as the Senate proposes, the estimated average cost for each would be $1.25 to $2.71 a week.
Blaine middle school counselor Kim Harris-Robinson told the Senate Committee on Judiciary that her boss fired her 25 years ago when she had to take time off to care for her infant son during a bout of pneumonia. The doctor told her that her baby might not survive.
"There was no other decision to make," she said.
The experience still haunts her. Even with lots of paid time off now, Robinson goes to work sick to save her days off in case her children fall ill.
Lynn Hoffman of Eureka Recycling believes that such policies pay for themselves in more productive, happier workers.
But Ameet Shah, who owns two tech companies in Burnsville, questioned whether employees would really want to pay an extra tax for paid leave. And he said his firms — one has nine employees and the other has three — could not afford to lose employees for months at a time.
"This would not only create a cost, but remove the flexibility we have in place," he said.
Maya Rao • 651-925-5043