Push for paid family leave takes on new urgency in pandemic

A union-backed coalition of groups renewed its lobbying push for paid family and medical leave on Valentine’s Day – and not by accident.

Love is at the heart of the proposed legislation, advocates said, adding that its failure to gain traction in the Senate over the past six years has cornered too many Minnesota families into achingly difficult choices that no one should have to make.

“No family should have to choose between a paycheck and caring for their loved ones,” said Rev. Vanessa Bradby, pastor of New Spirit United Church of Christ in Savage. “If we are serious about loving our neighbor, we should be serious about passing paid family and medical leave.”

Bradby and other faith leaders are once again teaming with small business owners, unions and community groups to push paid family and medical leave legislation at the Capitol this year.

Their proposal, which has support from the House DFL majority and Gov. Tim Walz, would create a statewide insurance pool to cover the cost of replacement wages for workers who take time off for the birth or adoption of a child, or to be with an ailing family member.

It would operate like the state’s unemployment insurance system, with workers and employers paying into the proposed fund. Workers who access the benefit would be eligible for up to 12 weeks of leave, with benefits averaging two-thirds of their typical wages.

Republicans who control the Senate have been cool to the idea of a statewide family leave benefit in recent years, but advocates say the COVID-19 pandemic has raised awareness of the need to give all workers – regardless of their race, class or zip code – the time they need to care for themselves and their families.

“The COVID pandemic has exposed the inadequate and inconsistent safety net available for families in this state,” the bill’s chief author, Rep. Ruth Richardson (D-Mendota Heights), said. Richardson noted that low-wage workers, workers of color and women are much less likely to have access to family leave than other workers, and she pointed to research showing the “stark disparities” in mental and physical health outcomes that result from lack of access to paid leave, including higher rates of infant mortality and pre-term births.

Advocates praised the DFL proposal to invest part of the state’s projected $7.7 billion budget surplus in pre-funding two years’ worth of benefits while the paid family leave program gets up and running.

“We cannot stand by and pretend we can’t do anything about” disparities in access to essential economic measures like paid family leave, said Gloria Perez, president of the Women’s Foundation of Minnesota.

The proposed legislation would also help level the playing field for small businesses in the hyper-competitive labor market, said Dan Swenson-Klatt, owner of a bakery and café in Minneapolis.

“As much as I would like to provide paid leave to all of my employees, I cannot do it alone,” he said.

The Minnesotans for Paid Family & Medical Leave coalition brings together over 30 organizations, and the state’s largest labor federation, the Minnesota AFL-CIO, is a co-chair.

“Essential workers have sacrificed their time and risked their safety like never before,” Minnesota AFL-CIO President Bernie Burnham said. “But hopefully, we’ve all gained a greater appreciation of how precious time with our loved ones truly is – and how we need the freedom to care for them when they need us.”

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