A push by Gov. Tim Walz and DFL lawmakers to make Minnesota one of a handful of states with paid family leave faces stiff opposition from Republicans brandishing new cost estimates that they say show the plan would force an unaffordable tax increase. A recent report from the state’s budget office estimates the program would cost about $450 million in 2021, its first year, and $900 million annually once fully implemented. The program would also require an additional 352 state workers to administer.
State Sen. Paul Gazelka, R-Nisswa, the GOP majority leader, called the cost projection “a real problem.” He does not plan to hold hearings or a floor vote on the proposal this session.
“I’ve always said I’m not supportive of mandates,” Gazelka said in an interview. Business groups strongly oppose the measure.
Federal law guarantees 12 weeks of unpaid family and medical leave for most workers, but just 14 percent of Americans have access to paid leave through their employers.
The push for greater paid leave has gained national momentum in recent years, with polls showing strong support for more access. But policymakers and voters remain split on how to achieve — and pay for — that goal. Congressional Democrats, including U.S. Sens. Amy Klobuchar and Tina Smith, want to enact a national plan similar to the one proposed in Minnesota. U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., meanwhile, recently reintroduced federal legislation that would allow parents to borrow from their Social Security funds to cover lost wages.
State Rep. Laurie Halverson, D-Eagan, chief author of Minnesota Democrats’ paid family leave bill, says it’s clear that new moms in Minnesota need more help. She points to data showing that a quarter of all Minnesota women go back to work just two weeks after giving birth. An aging population also means increasing numbers of people take time off to care for their elderly relatives and could benefit from paid leave, Halverson said.
She noted that about 400,000 Minnesotans take unpaid leave every year, losing out on about $383 million of income.
“We’re the last country to take this on. We have employers who have provided paid family leave all over the world for decades,” Halverson said. California and a handful of other states have paid family leave.
Halverson’s plan would collect a 0.65 percent tax on income, to be shared equally by employers and employees. The program is designed to resemble the current unemployment insurance system. She estimates the average worker would pay about $2 to $3 per week.
Advocates of paid leave in Minnesota had initially been optimistic about the bill’s chances in Minnesota. Ellen Bravo, co-director of the national Family Values @ Work coalition, told the Star Tribune earlier this year that she felt the proposal could attract bipartisan support. State Sen. Susan Kent, D- Woodbury, shared that optimism at a February news conference, saying she was having positive conversations with potential GOP co-authors.
But so far, with the legislative session more than half over, no Senate Republican has signed onto the bill.
Gazelka said he wants to keep the focus on legislation both chambers can pass and be signed into law by Walz. For an example of bipartisanship he cited a wage theft bill advancing through the Legislature that would crack down on employers who fail to pay workers.
“There is more serious discussion on wage theft,” Gazelka said. “Both the business and the trade community are trying to find a place in between, which is what I like.”
For now, House Democrats remain undeterred. Majority Leader Ryan Winkler, D-Golden Valley, said Democrats plan on passing a paid leave bill and making it part of negotiations to wrap up the session.