Minnesota Senate approves paid family and medical leave plan

ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) — The Minnesota Senate approved a plan Monday to entitle workers across the state to paid leave when they’re sick or caring for relatives who are ill.

While Senate Democrats hold only a one-seat majority, paid family and medical leave has been a priority of the party for several years, and the final 34-33 vote followed party lines. The proposal passed the House last week on a 68-64 vote, and Democratic Gov. Tim Walz is expected to sign the final version that emerges from a House-Senate conference committee.

The legislation would create an insurance-like system to allow workers to collect up to 12 weeks of partial wages when they take medical leave, including for pregnancy, and up to 12 weeks to take care of family members, starting in 2025. Replacement wages would range from 55% to 90%, averaging 66%. The benefits would be funded by a 0.7% payroll tax. Employers could charge half that expense to employees. Companies offering more generous benefits than the state requires could opt out.

Eleven other states and the District of Columbia already have similar programs, though Minnesota’s would be among the most generous. The lead author, Democratic Sen. Alice Mann, of Edina, said the U.S. is the only industrialized country without such a program in place. The paycheck deduction would be the equivalent of a cup of coffee a week for the average Minnesotan, she said.

“This program is proven to be successful, durable, sustainable, and popular,” Mann said.

Data from states that have paid leave programs shows they lead to better health outcomes for mothers and children, increased financial stability for families, higher employee retention, and less dependence on government aid, Mann said. Only 24% of Minnesota’s workforce now has access to paid leave, she said, with the “vast majority” being among the state’s highest earners. Among the lowest-wage earners, predominantly women and people of color, she said, only 6% have access to paid leave.

The Minnesota Chamber of Commerce and the state chapter of the National Federation of Independent Business, and Republican lawmakers, have tried with little success since the early days of the session to block or scale back the program because of the costs for employers, especially small businesses.

At a news conference ahead of the debate. GOP Sen. Julia Coleman, of Waconia, urged Democrats to hit the brakes and sit down with employers “to find a plan that will not crush our small businesses, make goods and services more expensive for every single Minnesotan.”

Among the dozens of people demonstrating outside the Senate chamber ahead of the vote was Samie Burnett, of Brooklyn Park, who works for a nonprofit that serves the homeless. While she said she already gets family leave thanks to her union, she said that wasn’t the case earlier in her career.

“When my grandpa was sick and he was dying, I wasn’t even able to take time off to be with him because I didn’t have PTO hours, I didn’t have paid time, I didn’t have anything,” Burnett said.

During the debate, Coleman offered an amendment for a voluntary alternative she introduced last year that would rely on tax credits for employers who choose to participate. It would authorize insurance companies to offer products providing varying degrees of paid family and medical leave. But employers would not be mandated to provide the benefits. Her amendment was defeated on a party-line vote.

Christine Fenner, president of the Waconia Area Chamber of Commerce, said at the GOP news conference that employers want to offer good benefits so they can be competitive in the tight labor market, but that the new tax would compound costs of doing business that are already growing.

Local governments have also raised concerns. Mike Funk, superintendent of the Stillwater Area Public Schools, said the tax would use up much of the education aid increase the Legislature is considering. He estimated it would cost his district about $480,000 annually, with half being paid by employees.

“Even though we have a historic surplus in Minnesota, we’re being asked to pay for this program through a new tax,” Funk told reporters.