Politics and Government

‘A much more inclusive safety net’: Minnesota House passes paid family leave program

People cheer in the chamber-3
Supporters of the proposal to create a state paid family and medical leave program posed for photos outside the Minnesota House chamber on Tuesday.
Dana Ferguson | MPR News

The Minnesota House of Representatives on Tuesday approved an 18-week paid family and medical leave program that could take effect starting in 2025. The vote was 68-64, with two Democrats and all Republicans voting no.

Under the bill, Minnesota workers and employers would pay into a state program similar to Minnesota’s unemployment insurance fund. Workers would then be able to access partial wages from the program if they take leave to welcome a new child, get sick or need to care for a loved one.

DFL lawmakers, backed by faith leaders, business owners, unions, health organizations and others pressed to pass a similar program for eight years. And now with DFL control at the Capitol, supporters said they felt confident that the measure could make it across the finish line this year.

“We are here because after eight years of fighting, of Minnesotans declaring that it is time and it is time and it is time, we are now moving at the speed of need,” Minister JaNaé Bates, communications director for the group ISAIAH, said. “And we’re getting ready to pass paid family and medical leave.”

A similar bill is set to come up for a Senate vote soon. If it passes there, a conference committee would likely be needed to come up with a final version. Gov. Tim Walz has said he supports the proposal and would sign a bill into law if it reaches his desk.

At the Capitol, bill supporters held up signs and cheered, “Get it done” outside the House chamber as lawmakers filed in for debate. The bill’s supporters said the change was a long time coming and could help even the playing field when it comes to workers’ ability to access paid leave.

“The ability to care for yourself, the ability to care for your loved ones, it's a basic human need, and it should not be denied to you because of where you work, the size of your employer, the color of your skin, your gender, who you love, or your zip code,” the bill’s author Rep. Ruth Richardson, DFL-Mendota Heights, said. “With this bill, we reject that harmful narrative and begin to build a long overdue and a much more inclusive safety net.”

Opponents, including GOP lawmakers, along with business and insurance groups, said the bill was too rigid. And they said there should be more incentives and flexibilities to encourage employers to offer more paid leave options.

“This will be the most expensive and complicated paid family and medical leave mandate for small businesses and workers in the country,” said John Reynolds, National Federation of Independent Business state director. “This is why a one-size-fits-all mandate with higher taxes is not the solution Minnesota small businesses need right now – or ever.”

Republicans on Tuesday offered an alternative plan that would create a private paid family and medical leave program backed by an insurance company. It would also provide an incentive program to encourage businesses to opt in.

They said offering more flexibility and options for buying in would be more successful than creating a state-run program and standard for all employers in the state.

“There’s folks out here who have concerns about this. There are citizens who don’t want a payroll tax. They don’t want to pay a payroll tax on something they really don’t look for and aren’t asking for,” Rep. Dave Baker, R-Willmar, said, adding a prediction that the program would be more expensive and harder to set up than supporters expected. “We are going to pass something today, but it is going to backfire on us."

GOP lawmakers on the floor tried unsuccessfully to limit the payroll tax rate, restrict the definition of eligible family members, let small businesses opt out of the requirements and shorten the period that a worker could draw down paid or medical leave. The House adopted one Republican amendment that would require a person to report to a country attorney if they have probable cause to believe that someone used the program to commit fraud.

People cheer in the chamber-2
Supporters of the proposal to create a state paid family and medical leave program hoisted signs and greeted members of the Minnesota House Tuesday.
Dana Ferguson | MPR News

DFLers said the private market had not met the need among workers. And women, and particularly women of color, had experienced the greatest burden in caretaking without paid leave benefits from their employers.

“So we've heard a lot about the free market and how it can solve all of our problems as if they haven't had decades to work on this problem that we know is a problem,” Rep. Andy Smith, DFL- Rochester, said. “They have done nothing. We are lagging behind the rest of the world in paid family and medical leave.”

Thirteen states and the District of Columbia have enacted paid family and medical leave programs.

The House bill was amended to allow for a maximum leave period of 18 weeks in one year or 24 weeks for people experiencing pregnancy complications. The Senate has put forward a 20-week maximum.

Employers that offer equivalent or additional leave benefits would not be required to join and could keep existing benefits.

Under the proposal, Minnesotans could become eligible for benefits beginning in 2025, and that’s when a payroll tax would be collected to fund it. DFL leaders have proposed using $1.3 billion in one-time budget surplus funding to get the fund started.

The measure would also ensure that an employee has a right to be reinstated to their position or to a similar one when they return from paid leave. And employers would be barred from retaliating against workers who take paid leave.

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