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How 35,000 Minnesota state employees got paid family leave — for now

Carlos Gonzalez, Star Tribune

Carlos Gonzalez, Star Tribune

Around Stephanie Meyer’s office, a lot of employee conversations are disgusting.

Meyer, an epidemiologist with the Minnesota Department of Health, is among the people called when someone wakes up violently expelling their dinner.

Her biggest case in 16 years with the department was a 2008-09 salmonella outbreak, which killed three nursing home patients before researchers traced the bug to a badly run peanut plant in Georgia.

But one recent chat with a colleague left them both feeling pretty good.

He’d just returned to work after taking time off to spend with his new baby. Between family leave, vacation, and the holidays, he’d been home with his wife for two months. “I didn’t realize how much that time would mean to me,” he said.

His gushing meant a lot. Meyer is eight months pregnant with her fourth child.

After each of her three previous pregnancies, Meyer took the 12-week unpaid leave mandated by the federal Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA). She considers herself “really lucky.” She could afford to skip paychecks, thanks to her husband’s “great job” in IT. When the family had three kids in part-time daycare simultaneously, they were spending $3,000 a month, a devastating bill for someone who just went three months without a paycheck.

“I don’t know how people do it without having family members living nearby,” Meyer says. “It’s really stressful.”

This time, Meyer’s much less stressed. She’s getting six weeks paid time, making her among the first state employees to take advantage of a new benefit. And maybe the last.

The six-week benefit had been a top priority of young members of the Association of Federal, State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) and the Minnesota Association of Professional Employees (MAPE) going into the unions’ last contract negotiations with the state. Gov. Mark Dayton offered 2.5 percent raises, but hedged on family leave, instead agreeing to have a task force look into it.

The unions took this as a pronouncement of the issue’s death by study.

Then a very strange thing happened. For perhaps the first time in the history of government, a task force was actually productive. It turns out women employees age 18 to 44 were leaving state jobs at double the turnover rate of other employees.

They were often leaving for local government, which was more family-friendly. Minneapolis and Hennepin County already offered three weeks paid leave. St. Paul gives moms a month, plus two weeks to all other parents.

At six weeks fully paid, Minnesota Management and Budget (MMB) projected the change to cost $2 million a year — which might be offset by the high price of turnover among young women.

“The largest expenses of a big enterprise are people that do the work, and there’s a high cost when those people leave to take other jobs because they’re not happy,” says Lt. Gov. Tina Smith. “That’s why so many of Minnesota’s most highly respected corporations already provide this benefit, like Target and General Mills.”

And 3M, which this month rolled out a 10-week paid leave benefit for all new parents.

The dual arguments of economics and fairness convinced Dayton, who agreed to add the benefit. The union contracts were already done, so the six-week leave was tacked-on in a “memorandum of understanding.” It’s the kind of phrase that makes most stop paying attention … unless their ears are trained to be suspicious of unions, in which case they perk right up.

When a subcommittee on employee relations met in mid-November, lawmakers peppered MMB deputy commissioner Eric Hallstrom with questions. Rep. Steve Drazkowski (R-Mazeppa) suggested the deal was illegal.

To conservatives, it looked like the governor cut a corrupt bargain with his union buddies.

“You’re straddling a creek,” Drazkowski said, “and there’s swamp on both sides. And somebody’s draining that swamp right now.”

Rep. Sarah Anderson (R-Plymouth), who chairs the Government Finance Committee, has “serious questions” about the way this went down. By focusing on those questions, she elides a more basic one: Should moms and dads who work for Minnesota get paid time off?

“[Dayton] will have to show what programming he is looking to exchange, or sacrifice, in order to do this instead,” says Anderson.

She might do well to consult one of her constituents, Margi Scott, who recently launched the website Take 12, a reference to the 12 weeks of unpaid leave required under FMLA. It’s where moms who can’t afford it tell their tales of high-wire balancing acts to make ends meet and throw themselves on the mercy of the internet.

It’s where state employees will be forced to turn if Republicans chose to kill the provision.

Anderson’s actually a fan of family leave — at least in the private sector. She authored a bill to give a tax credit to businesses offering it to employees. It’s supposed to encourage businesses who don’t believe they can afford it. 

The state of Minnesota can. We’ve got a $1.4 billion surplus. If we can’t find less than a half of a percent of it to keep people like Stephanie Meyer happy, we don’t deserve them in the first place.

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