Dayton's paid parental leave pitch sets stage for debate

Gov. Mark Dayton
Gov. Mark Dayton on Tuesday announced a proposal to give state employees six weeks of paid time off after the birth or an adoption of a child.
Jackson Forderer | For MPR News 2015

Gov. Mark Dayton's proposal to grant state workers six weeks of paid parental leave, unveiled Tuesday, would only affect about 500 people a year. If the plan is enacted the state would join a relatively exclusive group of employers in the state and nation that offer the benefit.

Dayton unveiled his proposal during an event hosted by U.S. Labor Secretary Thomas Perez. Dayton joked he thought a shorter leave was the way to go. But he was persuaded otherwise.

"I was at one point, being much removed from all this, leaning toward four weeks. But the lieutenant governor and my staff of young mothers all piled up on me and I still have the bruises," Dayton said.

Perez praised Dayton's proposal as an important step toward making paid leave for mothers and fathers available to all U.S. workers.

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"We are the only industrialized nation on the planet that doesn't have some form of federal paid leave. This is a no-brainier," Perez said. "And if we want more women in the workforce, one of the best things we can do is to expand paid leave in the United States."

Enacting a federal requirement for paid parental leave seems like a long shot right now, though, given the opposition from Republicans who control Congress and the business community.

But Perez says there have been steady efforts at the state and local levels of government.

The nonprofit Institute for Women's Policy Research has studied the issue extensively. The group says the body of research on paid parental leave demonstrates that there are health benefits for families and negligible costs for employers. The group also found possible gains for employers in productivity and morale.

But Jeff Hayes, program director for job quality and income security, says universal paid parental leave is still a long way off.

"Only about 13 percent of private-sector workers get maternity leave even. And paternity leave is less common," he said.

Hayes says the availability of paid leave among public sector workers isn't much higher. And he notes that the states that mandate paid parental leave — California, Rhode Island and New Jersey — only require partial pay for parents: 55 to 60 percent. And there are weekly caps, too. New Jersey's pay cap, for instance, is about $700.

Hayes attributes the low rate of paid parental leave to America's relatively hands-off attitude about employer-employee relations.

"Employment is supposed to be between you and your employer in this country. That's just sort of the ideology we have," Hayes said.

And Minnesota is no different. The Minnesota Chamber of Commerce says an increasing number of companies are finding ways to offer parental leave. But the state's largest business lobbying group also says it's best to let employers figure out how to do that.

"We support voluntary approaches and best-practices approaches that would hold up model companies that offer leaves effectively," said Cam Winton, the chamber's director of energy and labor management policy. "And really encouraging companies across the state to offer leaves that work for new mothers in a way that also works for employers."