A push for paid leave

U.S. Sen Al Franken recently met with Common Roots Cafe owner Danny Schwartzman and Jes Eiklenberg to discuss paid sick leave policies. Credit: Photo by Sarah McKenzie

Leaders at all levels of government in Minnesota are pushing for paid leave policies for workers to allow them a chance to take time off for family responsibilities and other challenges.

U.S. Sen. Al Franken is supporting legislation called the Healthy Families Act, which would allow workers the chance to earn paid leave to use when they become ill, need to care for a sick relative, get preventative medical care or cope with the impact of domestic violence, stalking or sexual assault.

He recently visited Common Roots Café, 2558 Lyndale Ave. S., to recognize the café’s owner Danny Schwartzman for bucking trends in the restaurant industry by allowing employees paid sick days and paying employees above the minimum wage. Franken also met with Jes Eiklenberg, a single mother living in St. Paul who was fired from a restaurant in Stillwater in January for calling in sick with the flu.

Franken noted that about a third of American workers don’t have paid sick leave.

“[Paid sick leave] creates a more loyal workforce, which means you have less turnover. You have less training costs, which means you have better service because [employees] are happier,” Franken said.

The Healthy Families Act, introduced by Democrats in the House and Senate in mid-February, would allow businesses with at least 15 employees the opportunity to earn up to 56 hours or seven days of paid sick leave each year.

“As the lead Democrat on the Senate Subcommittee on Employment and Workplace Safety, one of my top priorities is to fight for policies that support workplace fairness,” Franken said. “The Healthy Families Act, which would give our workers the opportunity to earn paid leave, is essential to protecting the middle class and those aspiring to join the middle class.”

Franken’s office also cited information from the Institute for Women’s Policy Research noting that if all workers had access to paid sick leave, emergency room visits would decline by 1.3 million visits a year and save $1.1 billion annually.

President Barack Obama’s 2016 budget proposal includes $2 billion to encourage states to establish paid family and medical leave programs. The Department of Labor is also using a $1 million grant this year to help states and cities launch feasibility studies for paid leave policies.

The paid-family leave proposals, backed by Democrats, face an uphill battle in the GOP-controlled Congress.

The United States is one of the few industrialized nations without paid family leave laws. Canada provides 15 weeks of paid maternity leave, according to the Department of Labor. The United Kingdom allows mother to take up to 52 weeks of maternity leave, including 39 weeks of paid leave.

At the state level, a new coalition called Minnesotans for Paid Family Leave is pushing for legislation that would allow all workers in the state a chance to take a paid leave of absence from their jobs to care for loved ones.

Legislation introduced by Rep. Ryan Winkler (DFL-Golden Valley) and Sen. Katie Sieben (DFL-Cottage Grove) would allow Minnesota employees the opportunity to take a paid leave with a percentage of their wages up to six weeks to care for family members.

Doran Schrantz, executive director of ISIAH, a member of the coalition pushing for the Paid Family Leave Act, said workplace policies haven’t kept up with changing family dynamics as single parents lead more families and most two-parent households can’t afford to have one full-time caregiver at home who isn’t earning a paycheck.

“Families have the same responsibilities to each other now that they have always had. We care for new babies. We care for sick children. And we care for elders in their senior years,” she said. “Our workplace policies haven’t kept pace with our changing way of life, and that means many workers are forced to choose between caring for loved ones and bringing home a paycheck to meet basic needs. Nobody benefits when workers have to make that choice.”

Only about 12 percent of American workers have the option of taking a paid family leave from their jobs, according to the U.S. Department of Labor.

About 60 percent of the country’s workers are covered under the federal Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), which allows for unpaid leaves. The act covers private-sector employers with 50 or more employees, public agencies and public and private elementary and secondary schools.

However, about 50 percent of workers covered by FMLA can’t afford to take an extended unpaid leave, according to the Labor Department.

Peggy Flanagan, executive director of Children’s Defense Fund-Minnesota, said parental leaves have a big impact on families.

“When parents can afford to take the time they need to bond with a new baby or care for a seriously ill child, we strengthen families and we all benefit,” she said.

The City of Minneapolis will consider a new paid parental leave policy in coming weeks, said Kate Brickman, communications director for Mayor Betsy Hodges.

In December, the City Council’s Executive Committee asked city staff to research parental leave policies and report back with recommendations by the end of the first quarter.

Two Minnesota cities — St. Paul and Brooklyn Park — have adopted paid leave policies.

The City of St. Paul’s policy allows four weeks of paid leave to mothers of newborns and two weeks paid leave for the non-birthing parent. Adoptive parents are eligible for two weeks of paid leave as well.

The City of Brooklyn Park allows employees to take one week of paid leave to care for babies — both mothers and fathers. Parents also can take an additional week of paid leave after the end of the 12-week unpaid leave allowed under the Family and Medical Leave Act.