ST. PAUL (AP) -- A modest first step toward expanding parental leave options for Minnesota moms and dads is making its way through the Legislature.
''I think this will lead to better employees, better companies,'' said Sen. Jerry Janezich, DFL-Chisholm, sponsor of the parental leave provision approved last week as part of a Senate spending bill.
Minnesota has one of the highest rates of working mothers in the nation -- 70 percent, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
The legislation would create a $1 million pilot project that employers could volunteer to join. Their workers who stay home with their babies or newly adopted children could receive two-thirds of their average paychecks, with the employers paying a third of the salaries and the state paying another third.
Both fathers and mothers could apply. But the maximum benefit a parent could receive would be $500 a week. Parents could receive benefits for up to 26 weeks. About 500 parents could receive benefits under the pilot project.
Current state law requires employers with 21 or more workers to provide up to six weeks of unpaid leave after the birth or adoption of a child. Employers with 50 or more workers must offer up to 12 weeks under the federal Family and Medical Leave Act.
Jim Koppel, executive director of the Children's Defense Fund of Minnesota, said the proposal addresses a huge problem with parental leave laws -- that most Minnesota parents can't afford to take unpaid extended leaves.
Koppel's organization surveyed 185 Minnesota employers last fall about attitudes toward parental leaves. Twenty percent said financial incentives, especially from the state, would encourage them to offer paid leaves, he said.
One of the few Minnesota businesses to offer paid parental leave supports the bill. Jim Painter, human resource director at ECM Publishers Inc. in Coon Rapids, testified that his company's two-year experience with paid leave has been overwhelmingly positive.
The company, founded by former Republican Gov. Elmer Andersen, offers paid leave at about 40 percent of the worker's salary, he said. About three to four people a year of more than 500 employees sign up for it.
''It's probably one of the best investments that we as a company can make,'' said Painter, whose company operates weekly publications in several north metro communities. ''If there is such a thing these days as company loyalty, this is the way to build it.''
The bill also is supported by women's organizations and children advocacy groups. But some business leaders are leery.
Tom Hesse, director of labor management policy for the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce, said it could create a false hope that all companies should have a paid parental leave program.
''It will lead to us wanting to have more access to it in the future, which we fear will lead to the use of the unemployment compensation fund or another pot of money that is not general revenues,'' he said.
The bill also faces opposition from the House. A companion bill hasn't received a hearing in the House Jobs and Economic Development Committee. The committee chairman, Rep. Arlon Lindner, R-Corcoran, said he worried about the bill's cost to taxpayers, its potential to become a mandated program and how it would affect worker shortages.
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