When Thomas Perez’s gig as U.S. labor secretary ends, he could have a future in opinion writing. He showed at Tuesday’s Regional Workers Voice Summit in Minneapolis that he has a knack for an apt analogy.

Perez was observing that today’s typical American family involves two parents who both work outside the home. “More dual-career couples working. That’s a good thing,” he said. “But at the same time, our laws didn’t evolve. We’re in the ‘Modern Family’ universe, but we have ‘Leave it to Beaver’ policies on paid leave and child care.”

All who heard Perez understood his TV sitcom reference — and that alone says that a lot changed in a relatively short time for American families. In the 55 years since Wally and “The Beav” came home from school each day to find Mom waiting for them in her pearls and high heels, the vast majority of moms went to work outside the home. They took jobs as varied and demanding — if not (yet) as financially rewarding on average — as those occupied by men.

A lot of American institutional assumptions and norms have needed adjustment in response to that tectonic shift in gender roles. Those tweaks have come more slowly than the glass-ceiling-breakers of the 1970s and 1980s expected. Too often, employers stuck with work rules set for Ward Cleaver’s generation and premised on a vague supposition that June was still at home minding the boys.

It likely didn’t occur to Ward’s boss to give him paid time off when Beaver was born. It evidently still hasn’t occurred to most American employers.

To his credit, it occurred last week to Gov. Mark Dayton. The DFL governor announced at Perez’s summit that he’ll ask the 2016 Legislature for $6 million per year to fund up to six weeks of paid parental leave for state employees. An estimated 500 workers per year in the state’s workforce of 35,000 are expected to take advantage of the benefit, which would shore up their postnatal income by $6,200 on average.

I’d call that proposal overdue. But that’s because I’m among a fortunate few. The Star Tribune has offered six weeks of paid leave to its female newsroom employees after the birth of a child since well before I became a mom in 1983. Other large Minnesota employers do much the same. But nationally, only 12 percent of private-sector employees have access to paid leave after the birth or adoption of a child, according to a U.S. Department of Labor website page that features a photo of a mom, a dad, a new baby — and Tom Perez.

The Obama administration is making a last-lap push for parental leave. Other Democrats — from Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders to municipal officials — are picking up the theme.

Minneapolis and St. Paul both initiated paid parenting leave plans for their employees in 2015. On the presession speaking circuit, state Senate DFL Majority Leader Tom Bakk has been telling audiences that “making the workplace more family-friendly” with a paid leave program is among his caucus’s top three priorities in the coming lawmaking season.

“I’m not interested in a big new mandate on businesses,” Bakk hastened to add to the Dakota County Chamber of Commerce on Feb. 5. “Employees will have to participate. But this is a good conversation for us all to have.”

It would have been a good conversation in 1980, too, when the Beaver, Wally and their peers were starting their families. Why is it coming now, when they’re grandparents?

My hunch: It’s because the Cleaver boys are also retirees, or nearly so. The baby boomers’ departure from the workforce and the comparatively small size of Generation X (today’s 35- to 55-year-olds) in Minnesota are combining to create a labor shortage. Keeping young parents in the labor force after the birth of a child matters a lot more to employers in 2016 than it did in 1980. As Perez’s Web page says, “Paid maternity leave can increase female labor force participation by making it easier for women to stay in the workforce after giving birth, which contributes to economic growth.”

There’s also something to be said for norms and expectations finally catching up with the “Modern Family” reality. In 1980, a lot of Americans believed that the birth of a child ought to take a woman out of the workforce for a prolonged period. Today’s Americans are less likely to hold to that notion. They’re more likely to think it odd that new parents are expected to either return to work and scramble for babysitting or stay home and forgo paychecks until their child is eligible for licensed day care, which commences in Minnesota at age six weeks.

As of 2014, employers in Minnesota are required to allow new mothers a leave of absence of at least 12 weeks — but are not required to continue their paychecks during that time. For low-wage workers, an unpaid leave is one that’s impossible to take.

Dayton’s action — provided the Legislature authorizes its funding — will apply only to state workers and only to parenting leaves. What DFL legislators have in mind for everyone else and all sorts of family medical leaves is a public social insurance system. It would be financed through contributions by both employers and employees and administered by the state. That’s what three other states — California, Rhode Island and New Jersey — offer with an annually adjusted payroll tax of less than 1 percent. State Sen. Katie Sieben, DFL-Newport, hopes to craft such a system for Minnesota in what will be her last legislative session. She announced Feb. 2 that she won’t run again.

Last week, a report commissioned by the 2015 Legislature and produced by the University of Minnesota endorsed that idea. Not only would a state-administered leave program bring lower costs to employers who already provide paid leaves, but it would also lengthen the time parents spend away from the job to bond with a new child.

That would be particularly helpful for low-income families, the report noted. It found that a quarter of Minnesota working women take less than two weeks off work after giving birth. Those women are disproportionately poor and people of color. Their lives likely don’t much resemble those of June and Ward Cleaver. Their employee benefits shouldn’t, either.

 

Lori Sturdevant is a Star Tribune editorial writer. She is at lsturdevant@startribune.com.