Our View: Trust, but verify on paid family/medical leave plan

But government can't allow perfection to be the enemy of the good. Minnesotans should be able to keep the lights on and the refrigerator full as they care for their loved ones.

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Our View

Minnesota might soon have one of the nation's most generous paid family leave programs.

The Paid Family and Medical Leave bills that currently are working their way through the House and Senate would create a new system, run by the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development. The state would provide some initial “seed” money, and going forward, workers and employers would pay into the fund — much like the unemployment insurance program. Current estimates place the cost at about 62 cents per $100 earned, with employers and employees splitting that cost 50-50.

So, a Minnesotan who earns $50,000 per year would pay about $13 per month for paid family leave “insurance.”

Then, when a worker has a baby, adopts a child or needs to care for an elderly parent or sick spouse, they would be eligible for up to 12 weeks of paid leave, during which time they would, on average, be paid roughly two-thirds of their usual salary. They'd also be eligible for an additional 12 weeks per year of paid sick leave for themselves.

Eight states already have similar programs in place, and another five have enacted programs but are still in the process of ramping them up. Notably, Minnesota would be the first Midwest state to mandate paid family leave. Colorado is the closest, with the other programs concentrated on the East and West coasts.


We see a lot to like in this proposal, which at its heart is based on the belief that people of all income levels should be able to prioritize their family's health and well-being over their jobs — and they shouldn't have to risk bankruptcy to do so.

The devil, of course, is in the details.

Bolstering the argument in favor of paid family leave is the fact that employers wouldn't be on the hook for paying their absent workers. For example, a father who decides to take six weeks of paternity leave would be paid by the state program — which means his employer could, in theory, use that employee's salary to pay a temp worker or overtime to his other staff.

We say “in theory” because Minnesota has a well-documented labor shortage. We don't have enough nurses, teachers, construction workers, electricians, day-care workers, food-service workers, police officers, home health aids or retail workers. Hiring is tough, and retention is tougher.

That's why chambers of commerce (including the Rochester Area Chamber of Commerce) have joined many owners of small businesses to oppose the plan currently under consideration. They argue that small businesses will not be able to function if crucial, highly skilled (and impossible to replace) employees are allowed to take several months of paid leave.

That's a valid concern. If a business has just 10 employees, and two of them take paid leave at the same time, that's a big gap to fill. A diner that loses its main cook for six weeks might close. A small-town auto repair shop might not survive a mechanic's three-month absence. We could easily list dozens of similar scenarios.

But the above argument is based on a problematic assumption; namely, that some workers are so crucial, so irreplaceable, that their basic human needs must take a backseat to their jobs. Or, to put it another way, foes of Minnesota's proposed family leave program are tacitly admitting that a lot of people who will show up for work Monday morning probably should be at home with a 6-week-old baby, or holding the hand of a spouse who is undergoing chemotherapy, but they have bills to pay, so they go to work.

It's an ugly truth, but truth it is.


Will some employers face hardships when employees no longer have to choose between paying the mortgage or being a caregiver? Absolutely. And yes, it's entirely possible that some businesses won't survive a crucial employee's long absence.

That's why our endorsement of paid family leave in Minnesota comes with some caveats.

If it passes, it should be ramped up incrementally, with smaller businesses having more time to cross-train their current staff. And, within five years of its implementation, state auditors should do a thorough examination to determine how well the program is functioning, including its impact on small businesses and the level of fraud.

That's right, fraud.

Any system that can potentially put money into people's pockets is a target for bad actors. In the COVID year of April 1, 2020 through March 31, 2021, Minnesota paid $2.1 billion in fraudulent unemployment claims, and the “Feeding our Future” debacle put at least $250 million into the hands of criminals. Even with strong state oversight and documentation requirements, paid family leave likely would invite some fraudulent claims.

But government can't allow perfection to be the enemy of the good. Minnesotans should be able to keep the lights on and the refrigerator full as they care for their loved ones — and they shouldn't be worried about losing their job as they provide that care.

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