U.S. labor secretary touts parental leave during Twin Cities visit
ST. PAUL -- U.S. Labor Secretary Thomas Perez on Tuesday said paid parental-leave policies will be instituted from the "bottom up," led by cities, state agencies and private-sector employers, as the need to retain workers increases in Minnesota a...
ST. PAUL -- U.S. Labor Secretary Thomas Perez on Tuesday said paid parental-leave policies will be instituted from the “bottom up,” led by cities, state agencies and private-sector employers, as the need to retain workers increases in Minnesota and throughout the country.
Under the Family Medical Leave Act, private employers are required to offer their employees up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave after the birth of a child. Workers generally use up their sick and vacation time, if they have any, leaving them forced to choose between getting paid and getting well if they get sick later in the year, Perez said.
“We are the only industrialized nation on the planet that doesn’t have some form of paid leave,” said Perez, addressing a panel of advocacy groups, employers and elected officials at UCare offices in northeast Minneapolis on Tuesday. “This is not an act of charity. This is a form of enlightened self-interest.”
Perez met with employees of UCare, one of the largest nonprofit health insurance providers in the state, in a closed-door session to discuss the company’s paid leave policies for new parents. He then took questions from a table of advocacy groups and elected officials that included St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman and Minneapolis Mayor Betsy Hodges.
Public employers such as St. Paul, Minneapolis, St. Louis Park and Hennepin County have recently offered paid parental leave to their employees, a perk designed in part to help keep good workers as competition for them gets more intense. Coleman noted on Tuesday that Google, the search engine company, offers employees - including new fathers - between four and five months of paid leave after the birth of a child.
While state and local governments are not in a position to be as generous, competing for skilled workers will require offering targeted benefits, the mayor said, and paid leave is one of them. As of 2015, St. Paul offers four weeks to the birthing parent and two weeks to the non-birthing parent. Coleman said the projected cost to the city - $200,000 in the first year - was “a drop in the bucket” compared to the cost of losing qualified talent.
“I think I got a day off when my daughter was born, and I always felt terrible about that,” said the mayor, a former Hennepin County public defender.
Matt Kramer, president of the St. Paul Area Chamber of Commerce, said in an email that paid parental leave is one of many benefits the private sector can consider, but it should not be forced upon employers.
“It is OK for government to do this … but we are concerned that this should not be a mandate for private employers,” Kramer said. “Each employer can decide if this is an employee benefit that makes a difference for them in recruiting and retaining staff.”
State Rep. Paul Thissen, the House DFL leader, noted that explaining the benefit of paid parental leave to private employers will take a careful analysis of the potential costs and gains. The possibility of citywide mandates regarding paid parental leave and accrued sick leave has met resistance from business advocates.
After the panel discussion at UCare, Perez met with officials at Minneapolis Community and Technical College to discuss another priority outlined in President Barack Obama’s State of the Union address - two years of free community college for qualified students.
Mike Christenson, an associate vice president of partnerships with MCTC, said the college has already laid the foundation for free enrollment through the “Power of You” program, which was launched in 2006.
Some 240 students at MCTC and 150 students at St. Paul College attend classes tuition-free, thanks to a combination of federal Pell grants and corporate and foundation support from the likes of General Mills, the McKnight Foundation and other partners. About 75 percent of those students are students of color.
Christenson said Tennessee and Chicago are rolling out similar programs, with the goal of eliminating academic and employment disparities between whites and non-whites. He said the unemployment rate for blacks in North Minneapolis is three times that of the general white population, and putting 1,900 people to work would achieve parity.
That’s not an unrealistic goal, he said. “We have 1,106 North Side students, and many of those are Power of You students,” Christenson said. “We think if we knock down the financial hurdles to college, it would go a long way to closing the gap.”
Perez also visited Graco, a fluid handling company in northeast Minneapolis, where he met 10 machinist interns from the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system, including two from MCTC. The starting wage for machinists is $23 per hour, Christenson said.
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