Walz, lawmakers debate extent of paid leave benefit

Governor Tim Walz looks at a baby
Gov. Tim Walz greets Samantha Sencer-Mura and her 7-month-old son Tadashi at a St. Paul coffee shop where he was talking about paid family and medical leave on Wednesday.
Brian Bakst | MPR News

Suddenly jolted efforts to pass a new Minnesota law on paid parental and health leave for workers will hinge on the extent of the coverage and who pays with considerable distance between plans now on the table.

Senate Republicans gave paid-leave advocates a glimmer of hope this week when they presented proposals that could encourage more companies to provide leave benefits to workers. They don’t go as far as plans proposed by DFL lawmakers and Gov. Tim Walz to guarantee paid time off to bond with a new child, cope with a serious illness or tend to a sick family member. 

“This is just smart policy. It's long overdue,” Walz said at the outset of a stakeholder discussion Wednesday at a St. Paul coffee shop. The shop’s owner told Walz he would like to provide his workers a family leave benefit but can’t afford it on his own.

Legislative Republicans insist on a voluntary program where employer costs are offset with tax credits. They oppose full state oversight of a leave benefit.

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Senate Taxes Committee Chair Carla Nelson, R-Rochester, held a hearing Tuesday around one of two GOP leave proposals; the other bill enabling insurers to sell leave policies cleared the Commerce Committee. Nelson’s bill applies to leave upon birth or adoption of a child. It would provide credits of up to $3,000 that she says would benefit workers.

“In two ways — one helping the employers giving them an incentive to provide that paid family leave and then secondly for those employees who do not work for an employer who has that paid family leave this provides a refundable tax credit,” Nelson said.

Walz described the GOP plans as “unworkable” but a potential starting point for negotiations. He supports a state-managed system as a way to ensure adequate coverage and put small companies on a level playing field. 

Walz and Lt. Gov. Peggy Flanagan seized on what they saw as a fresh opening in the debate. But Flanagan said a solution must contain parental leave and paid time off related to serious illness.

“This is a bold and responsible step that we can take to support workers and families. So this is how we support women,” Flanagan said. “This is how we support our elders, people of color Indigenous folks, low-wage workers and every Minnesota worker.”

The Walz plan depends on a new per-employee tax and wouldn’t fully get off the ground until 2025. Republicans say theirs could be ready sooner, but fewer employees overall would qualify.

At the Cahoots Coffee Bar, nonprofit organization leader Samantha Sencer-Mura told of her organization’s relatively new policy that provides up to eight weeks of time off with some wage replacement. 

Sencer-Mura wound up taking 10 weeks off in total after complications around the birth of her now-7-month-old son, Tadashi, who squirmed on her lap as she spoke about the benefit as a critical lifeline.

“No one should ever be weighing — ‘do I leave my job very abruptly to be with my child at this critical time or do I save my leave to kind of have the leave experience that I had hoped for?’” she told Walz and Flanagan. “My experience is one that we often think of when we think of paid family leave. But as an employer, I know there are lots of reasons why people may need to take some time out of the workforce. And so how do we retain and support those people?”