State government employees have a new benefit that DFL Gov. Mark Dayton and Lt. Gov. Tina Smith say will help retain and attract good workers: up to six weeks of paid leave for parents following the birth or adoption of a child.
Minnesota is the fourth state — following California, New Jersey and Rhode Island — to enact paid leave for parents. Policies in each of the states vary, with some covering both public and private employees, and some cities have also implemented their own policies.
The benefit went into effect on Tuesday and is now available to approximately 32,000 state employees, including mothers and fathers. State workers had previously been eligible for up to 12 weeks of unpaid family leave but paid leave, in the form of short-term disability coverage, was only available to birth mothers.
Smith called the new policy an "important step" in the discussion about a broader statewide parental leave law that would also cover workers at private businesses, adding that lawmakers "need to keep working so access to family and medical leave isn't determined by the luck of where parents work."
But the future of the benefit, even for state employees, remains unclear. It was implemented through an unusual process that allowed it to be enacted without a formal vote of the Legislature. Next year, members of both the GOP-controlled House and the Senate will get to decide if state workers can keep the benefit — or if they'll lose it just months after it took effect.
While DFLers in the House and Senate have championed parental and family leave laws — and passed one in the Senate last year — Republicans have continually raised concerns about potential costs to taxpayers and new mandates on private business.
Sen. Michelle Benson, R-Ham Lake, said she understands the interest in making state government jobs appealing to talented workers, but questions both the way the governor went about imposing the new benefit and his argument that his plan is in step with many other Minnesota employers.
"One of the arguments is that we need this to stay competitive, but all the other examples they gave us didn't have a benefit set this rich," she said.
Dayton proposed the six-week leave plan in February. At the time, he said about 500 state workers would probably use parental leave each year. Officials now say that would cost the state $2 million per year, which would be covered by departments' personnel budgets.
The plan was approved by state workers' unions. Then, because lawmakers were not in session, the plan was sent to the Legislature's Subcommittee on Employee Relations, which could then approve or reject the proposal within 30 days. That committee met Monday, the last day of that time period, but did not have enough members present to take an official vote. The committee's lack of action is considered an approval, allowing the governor to put the plan into place — though it will now have to be approved by the Legislature this spring if it is to continue.
When lawmakers return to St. Paul in January, they'll likely have plenty of questions about how much the benefit will cost, said Rep. Sarah Anderson, R-Plymouth, who serves as chairwoman of the House State Government Finance Committee. Anderson said she believes it will require the state to cut programs and services.
But Sen. Katie Sieben, DFL-Newport, who authored a family leave bill that stalled in the House, said she believes Minnesotans are concerned about the high costs to families trying to spend time with babies and newly adopted children. But she said she's unsure how plans for either state workers or private-sector workers will fare in both a House and Senate that will now have Republican majorities after the election.
"I still think that people are concerned about their own economic situation, and the ability to have paid time off when welcoming a new member of the family is critical to a family's economic security, so it would be great if it could still happen," she said.