A paid family and medical leave program that would allow all Minnesota workers to take months off work to care for a newborn, a sick family member or recover from illness is nearing reality at the state Capitol.
The Senate voted along party lines to create a state-run leave program Monday that would enable people to take time off with partial pay. It would be funded by a payroll tax on employers and employees. Some employers and business groups oppose the bill, while other workers and small business owners have long pressed for the change.
"This program is going to even the playing field," said Senate bill sponsor Alice Mann,DFL-Edina. "It will keep people out of poverty, and most importantly this program is built on a foundation that we are all worthy."
The DFL-led House passed a paid leave plan last week that differs slightly from the Senate version. The two chambers need to align the measures in the next two weeks before the legislative session ends and send the final bill to Democratic Gov. Tim Walz, who plans to sign it into law.
The biggest difference is the total number of weeks a worker could take off. Under both plans, people could take up to 12 weeks to care for a newborn or sick family member or 12 weeks for their own serious health condition. But if they need to take time off to care for both themselves and another person in one year, the time off generally would max out at 20 weeks in the Senate version and 18 weeks in the House.
Some employers condemned the bill Monday. At a news conference ahead of the vote, Jodi Theis, who owns Waconia pet store Paws Inn Pet Essentials, said she is having a hard time hiring employees amid workforce shortages and is worried about the cost of training temporary workers to fill in if someone takes weeks or months of leave.
"I'm concerned on how this is going to affect my bottom line. How am I going to be able to continue staffing as it's a struggle already?" she said.
However, Poplar Salon owner Renee Herskovitz is among business owners backing the change. She joined a crowd of supporters who rallied at the Capitol ahead of the vote.
She said she doesn't have any workers now, in part because it's expensive to offer benefits such as paid leave. The state program would ease that challenge, Herskovitz said, and she plans to sign up for the program herself.
She would have to pay the full 0.7% payroll tax under the Senate version. Companies with employees would be able to split that cost with their workers.
The state would start collecting money through the new tax at the same time that benefits would first be offered on July 1, 2025. The tax would cover the cost of employing roughly 400 new state employees to administer paid leave, among other expenses.
Senators also plan to use $648 million of the state's estimated $17.5 billion budget surplus to jump start the program.
Republican lawmakers decried the addition of a new tax and the mandated approach, which they said will prevent employers from being able to tailor benefits to best fit their workforce's needs.
They introduced a slew of largely unsuccessful amendments Monday to try to change the bill. Sen. Julia Coleman, R-Waconia, pressed instead to give tax credits to employers to help them offer their own paid-leave programs.
"While we believe expanding access to paid family leave is the right thing to do, we don't believe the Democrats' one-size-fits-all mandate, a new tax, billions in spending and a massive new government bureaucracy that will crush our small businesses, hurt our teacher shortage issue and make life for Minnesota even tougher is the right way to go about it," Coleman said.
Eleven other states already have passed paid leave programs. The United States' lack of paid leave is an outlier among industrialized nations, said Mann, who is a physician. She said such programs lead to lower maternal morbidity and mortality rates, more women breastfeeding for longer, better parental and child health, more financial stability for families and a lower turnover of employees.
Former DFL Sen. Susan Kent, who spent years trying to pass the bill when the chamber was under GOP control, returned to the Capitol to watch Monday's vote. She had cancer when she was working on the bill and said she got to know many people who struggled to juggle treatments and work schedules. She also heard about moms who had to return to work two weeks after giving birth.
"We let puppies stay with their mothers longer. We insist on it," Kent said. "You think about all the families and babies that missed out on bonding time because their moms had to get food on the table."