Paid family and medical leave in play at Minnesota Capitol

The Minnesota State Capitol in St. Paul. (FOX 9 )

Supporters of creating a paid family and medical leave system in Minnesota rallied at the state Capitol on Tuesday and lobbied their lawmakers to try to push the plan over the finish line.

"You know that anywhere else in the developed world, paid family and medical leave is the norm," Democratic Gov Tim Walz told a crowd in the packed rotunda. "You know that in 12 states and the District of Columbia, paid family-medical leave is being offered."

As currently proposed, the legislation would set up a mandatory paid family and medical leave insurance program funded by a 0.7% payroll tax that businesses could partly pass on to employees. It would allow up to 12 weeks of partial wage replacement in a 52-week period to care for a sick family member or a newborn or adopted child, and up to 12 weeks for an employee to attend to their own health issues. That could add up to 24 weeks of paid time off in a year.

Walz told reporters afterward that he’s feeling good about getting the proposal through both chambers this year. The bill has passed the House before, but it never got a hearing in the Senate when it was under Republican control. The governor indicated that he’s willing to negotiate on the details, such as the number of weeks or the situations for which a person could take time off, although he said adoption "absolutely needs to be included."

House and Senate committees have held several hearings on the proposal since getting off to a fast start in January, but the legislation has been on hold for the last few weeks while lawmakers await a detailed analysis of the costs from the nonpartisan Legislative Budget Office. Budget targets announced by Walz and legislative leaders Tuesday earmark $668 million for startup costs.

Democratic Rep. Cedrick Frazier, of New Hope, a co-author in the House, told reporters the analysis is "imminent" and that "constant conversations" are taking place about the number of weeks off that would be allowed.

Sen. Alice Mann, of Edina, lead sponsor in the Senate, where Democrats hold just a one-vote majority, said in an interview that supporters are "working really hard" to address concerns and round up votes.

Mann, who works as an emergency room physician in Northfield, told the rally about one of her patients, a 20-year-old who slipped on the ice and shattered his ankle. He started crying, but it wasn’t from the pain, she said. "I’m crying because I work in housekeeping," she quoted him as saying. "If I can’t walk, I can’t work. What am I going to do?"

Ashlie Kennedy, of St. Paul, told the rally she was denied the time off as she felt she needed to grieve after her daughter, Blair, died shortly before birth in 2021. She had been told previously that, as a state employee in the judicial branch, she could take paid parental leave. But she said her request was denied on the grounds that the "unwritten intent" of branch policy was to allow parents to bond with their babies. Because her child died, she said, she was told she no longer qualified.

"So one week after Blair’s funeral, and just three weeks after her birth and death, I returned to work," Kennedy said.

Business groups, including the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce and the National Federation of Independent Business, oppose the new costs that the legislation would impose on employers. Lauryn Schothorst, a lobbyist with the Chamber, said businesses haven’t managed to change the "big banner items" that worry them though they’ve made some progress with smaller "workability" issues.

Over 80% of Minnesota Chamber members already offer some kind of paid leave, Schothorst said in an interview. They oppose the current program design as a "too expansive, too expensive, insolvent and one-size-fits-all approach," she said. They’d rather explore a more targeted approach, she said.

Geoff Baker, president of McFarland Truck Lines in Austin, a family-owned company that employs about 80 people in Minnesota, said he already provides great pay and benefits because he has to in the highly competitive labor market. He figures the program would cost him $75,000 to $100,000 a year.

Baker said he was part of a small group of business owners who met with the governor a couple weeks ago. He called Walz "a fair-minded person" and hopes they made their case effectively.

"I’m worried. I’m scared to death that this will make Minnesota a real outlier," Baker said in an interview. "It’s not going to attract more workers to Minnesota, I firmly believe that. It’s just going to make it more costly to do business in Minnesota, and that scares the heck out of me."