People need to be able to stay home when they are sick without worrying about pay.
The growing coronavirus outbreak brings new urgency to a proposal to guarantee Minnesota workers the right to paid family and medical leave, community activists and Democratic legislative leaders said Thursday, ahead of a House debate on a bill to do just that.
"During an outbreak, access to paid medical leave and paid sick time can prevent the spread of illness through our communities," Dr. Hannah Lichtsinn of Minnesota Doctors for Health Equity, told reporters as she held her 6-year-old daughter, Linnea. "As we all plan to protect our families from the spread of COVID-19, we need to make sure that people can stay home from work and school when they're sick, without worrying about having to pay the rent or put food on the table."
The bill would set up a paid family and medical leave insurance program funded by a 0.6% premium on wages. It would allow up to 12 weeks off in a 52-week period to care for a sick family member, for an employee to attend to their own serious health condition, or to care for a newborn or adopted child. Employees returning from leave would be entitled to reinstatement in an equivalent position.
The bill was expected to easily pass the Minnesota House on Thursday evening. But like many initiatives by the House Democratic majority this session, the proposal has been blocked by leaders of the Senate Republican majority, who don't plan to act on it.
"In all public comments, they've been very dismissive of this as a solution," Democratic Senate Minority Leader Susan Kent, the chief sponsor in her chamber, said at a news conference. But she urged supporters "to make their voices heard so that Senate Republicans can recognize that it is really worth this conversation."
The bill also gives Democrats one more issue to use in the election campaign, when they hope to retain their majority in the House and take control of the Senate. Last week's House passage of a pair of gun control proposals that face vehement opposition in the Senate is another example.
"Minnesotans have been loud and clear with us, on the campaign trail and here at the Capitol, that they are ready for paid family and medical leave," House Speaker Melissa Hortman said.
To pay for the insurance, employers would be required to pay premiums based on workers' wages, but could share the cost by deducting up to half of the premiums from employees' paychecks. The minimum weekly benefit would be about $200 with a maximum of about $1,077. Employers that already offer equal or better benefits could opt out. Self-employed people could opt in.
Republican Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka dismissed the proposal as a "one-size-fits-all option with a huge price tag."
Business groups oppose the bill, saying in interviews that it would impose close to $900 million in annual premium costs on employers.
Lauryn Schothorst, director of workplace policy for the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce, called it "very expansive and expensive and broad."
And the bill contains no exceptions for small businesses just starting up, said Mike Hickey, state director for the National Federation of Independent Business.
"This is the kind of thing that really deters people from going into business," he said. "It's a big risk."
An estimated 3 million Minnesota employees would be covered, according to the state Department of Employment and Economic Development.
Nine states already have passed paid family and medical leave laws, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures, while Minnesota is one of 20 states currently considering them.