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Paid family and medical leave may have its chance in Minnesota this year

A previous DFL plan called for up to 12 weeks of paid leave for family and medical reasons. Republicans opposed creating the program, which would create a new tax.

The Minnesota state Capitol. Don Davis / Forum News Service
The Minnesota state Capitol.
Don Davis / Forum News Service
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ST. PAUL — Establishing a paid family and medical leave program has been a priority for many Minnesota Democratic-Farmer-Labor lawmakers. Now that they'll have complete control of state government on Jan. 3, it’s yet another one of many new possibilities at the Capitol.

Proponents of an expansive new paid leave system say it will help level the playing field for low-income workers who often do not have access to benefits through their jobs. But Republicans and statewide business groups have stood against the DFL paid leave proposals in the past because it would introduce new taxes and bureaucracy.

This year, however, a DFL majority in both the Senate and the House and a Democratic governor mean a new paid program is more likely to become a reality in Minnesota.

Rep. Ruth Richardson, a Mendota Heights Democrat who has carried the proposal in the House and is set to do so in the next legislative session, said she is working with legislators on a new bill and is optimistic about paid leave's chances in the coming year.

"I think we have a real opportunity with the makeup of the 2023 Legislature to really make some real investments in terms of ensuring that families have access to paid family and medical leave," she said. "These are decisions that should not come down to luck and no one should be in the position of having to choose between caring for themselves with caring for a loved one."

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Ruth Richardson.jpg
Rep. Ruth Richardson, DFL-Mendota Heights

Paid leave bills have appeared in different forms in the Legislature, and Richardson said she and other members of her caucus are still in the process of drafting a bill for the 2023 session. It's not yet certain what paid leave legislation could look like in Minnesota, but recent proposals give some indication of what future bills could look like.

A previous plan from House Democrats would create a state program that would offer up to 12 weeks of partially paid time off for family reasons such as a new child or a seriously ill or dying relative. It would also provide up to 12 weeks of medical leave, including for pregnancy complications. Employers and employees would contribute about $3 per week, and the amount of pay a beneficiary receives would be based on a sliding scale tied to earning level. Workers could get up to 90% of their wages while on leave, depending on their income.

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Past House DFL family and medical leave legislation would also create a new agency to administer the program, and the initial startup would cost more than $1.7 billion in the first two years, according to nonpartisan legislative research. Under the most recent House version of the proposal, workers would start receiving benefits starting in 2023 but employers would not begin paying premiums until 2024.

Past projections have shown the state would collect $840 million each year in new taxes to fund the program, though business groups estimate it is now closer to $1 billion.

Incoming DFL legislative leaders and Gov. Tim Walz have all signaled that paid family and medical leave will be a priority. Walz included a leave proposal in his supplemental budget recommendations last January.

A bill this session could very well look like past proposals advanced by Democrats in the Legislature, and with the record projected budget surplus swelling to $17.6 billion in the most recent projection, there is more funding on the table to get the program started.

Minnesota Republicans in recent years have advanced an alternative paid family and medical leave plan in the Senate, though it was not well received by DFLers, labor or other paid leave advocates.

A proposal carried by Sen. Julia Coleman, R-Waconia, would allow insurers to sell leave plans to businesses, something they can’t currently do. Coleman and other proponents argued the plan would allow businesses to provide paid leave while avoiding higher taxes and administrative costs. The bill had support from the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce and the National Federation of Independent Business.

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Richardson and other Democrats said the proposal wouldn’t provide a safety net in the event of serious medical issues and excluded low-income workers.

Following the Dec. 6 announcement of the state’s new record surplus, the NFIB said the state should focus on tax relief, and took aim at the DFL’s paid family leave proposal.

“First, tax increases in any form must be off the table,” NFIB Minnesota State Director John Reynolds said in a news release. “This includes the proposed billion-dollar payroll tax hike that would fund an unworkable new government-run paid leave mandate.”

Woodbury Democrat Sen. Susan Kent carried the Senate DFL paid leave bill in the past, though she will not return to the Senate this year. It’s not yet clear who will take the lead on that issue in that chamber.

When Republicans controlled the Senate, the DFL version of the paid family and medical leave proposal never got a hearing. A Senate DFL caucus spokesperson said that won’t be the case in 2023.

Nine states and the District of Columbia require employers to offer paid family leave.

This story was updated Monday, Dec. 12 at 5:25 p.m. to correct an error. An earlier version of this story inaccurately compared a proposed leave program to the state's unemployment insurance system. It was originally published Friday, Dec. 8 at 9:17 a.m.

Alex Derosier covers Minnesota breaking news and state government for Forum News Service.
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