Minnesota’s Democratic governor and legislature just enacted one of the most pro-worker packages of legislation that any state has passed in decades—it includes paid family and medical leave, prohibits non-compete clauses, bars employers from holding anti-union captive audience meetings, and strengthens protections for meatpacking workers and Amazon warehouse workers.
Not only that, Minnesota’s new legislation mandates paid sick days, allows teachers’ unions to bargain over educator-to-student ratios, and creates a statewide council to improve conditions for Minnesota’s nursing home workers.
Proud of this burst of legislation, Minnesota’s commissioner of labor and industry, Nicole Blissenbach, said these new laws “truly make Minnesota the best state for workers and their families.”
The legislation’s backers say these pro-worker measures were made possible by the Democrats’ winning control of Minnesota’s State Senate in last November’s elections, giving that party trifecta control of the House, Senate, and Governor’s Office. In recent years, Minnesota’s Republican-controlled Senate had failed to advance various pro-worker bills passed by the state’s Democratic-controlled House, but the Democrats now have a 34-to-33 majority in the Senate.
“This legislation represents work that has been a long time coming—sort of bottled-up demands from workers,” said Jennifer McEwen, a Democrat who represents Duluth and is chair of the Senate Labor Committee. “These are things that most workers in our peer nations take for granted and enjoy. These are just very baseline protections that honestly should have been enacted decades ago.” The United States is the only wealthy industrial nation and one of just a handful of nations worldwide that doesn’t guarantee all workers paid parental leave.
Last week, Minnesota’s governor, Tim Walz, a Democrat, signed the Paid Family and Medical Leave Act as well as an Omnibus Labor Bill, which contains a raft of pro-worker provisions. In signing the paid leave legislation, Walz said, “We’re ensuring Minnesotans no longer have to make the choice between a paycheck and taking time off to care for a new baby or a sick family member.”
The new law lets Minnesota workers take up to twelve weeks a year with partial pay to care for a newborn or sick family member and also allows workers twelve weeks to recover from a serious illness or health problem. The law places a cap of twenty weeks per year for employees who seek to use both provisions.
Senator Alice Mann, a medical doctor and the main Senate sponsor of the leave bill, said that when she worked overseas as a doctor in Brazil, Nicaragua, Tanzania, and Zimbabwe, she saw that those countries had parental and family leave provisions—so she grew appalled that the far wealthier United States did not.
“Paid family and medical leave,” Mann said, “leads to so many great things: better maternal health, better child health, decreased hospitalization for children, increased rates of breast-feeding, increased employee retention, greater participation in the workforce for women, and decreased gender disparities in the workplace. I knew that this was something important. This is something I wanted to work on.”
The Paid Family and Medical Leave Act narrowly passed Minnesota’s Senate, 34 to 33, with every Republican voting against and business groups lobbying against the bill.
“This is a long time coming and it’s definitely long overdue,” said Representative Ruth Richardson, the bill’s main sponsor in the House. “The vast majority of Minnesotans don’t have access to paid family and medical leave. We see who is left out—it is disproportionately women and communities of color and low-income workers who often can’t afford to take leave because of their low income.”
Some of the legislation’s supporters say that several of the newly enacted provisions are so popular, like paid family and medical leave and paid sick days, that they should be embraced and enacted in other trifecta blue states, such as Michigan.
“Paid family and medical leave is extremely popular, not only in Minnesota, but nationally as well,” Representative Richardson said. “It’s one of those issues that are incredibly bipartisan. I believe that passing paid family and medical leave is possible in blue and red trifecta states and in everything in between.” She noted that a small business group, the Main Street Alliance, was among the bill’s many supporters.
Even though the American public overwhelmingly supports paid family and medical leave—by 73 percent to 27 percent according to a CBS News/YouGov poll—business groups have successfully blocked leave legislation in Congress and in many states, asserting that it is an expensive employer mandate. Doug Loon, president of the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce, vigorously opposed the leave legislation, saying, “This massive policy will bring fundamental changes to every employer and employee in the state—from $1.5 billion or more in annual payroll taxes [to] unwarranted shifts in benefits.”
The Omnibus Labor Act that Walz signed last week was chock-full of pro-worker provisions:
- Ban on non-compete clauses. Under the new legislation, non-compete provisions are void and unenforceable. Walz’s office said that the new law, by prohibiting a practice that bars workers from finding jobs with competing employers, gives workers “the freedom to seek better working conditions and higher wages without restrictions.” The ban doesn’t invalidate non-compete clauses entered into before July 1, 2023.
- Paid sick days. To help workers take care of themselves or a family member, the new law lets employees earn one hour of sick and safe time for every thirty hours worked. The law allows accrual of up to forty-eight hours of sick time each year, equivalent to six full-time eight-hour days. (Employers can agree to a higher amount.)
- Nursing Home Workforce Standards Board. The law calls for creating a panel with an equal number of worker and employer representatives that will set statewide minimum standards for nursing-home employees, while seeking to improve working conditions and care.
- Warehouse worker safety. The law requires Amazon and other warehouses to tell employees about every work quota they are required to meet, how their work speed is measured, and what happens if they fail to meet their quota. The law also lets employees see work speed data and prohibits employers from retaliating against workers who seek such data.
- Ban on “captive audience” meetings. Under the new legislation, Minnesota employers cannot require workers to attend anti-union propaganda sessions, often called “captive audience” meetings. The law makes it illegal for an employer to retaliate against a worker for refusing to attend a political or religious meeting, and under the law, an anti-union meeting is considered a type of political meeting.
- Safe workplaces for meat and poultry processing workers. The law requires Minnesota’s Department of Labor and Industry to appoint a meatpacking industry worker rights coordinator to submit an annual report recommending ways to improve conditions and treatment for meat and poultry processing workers. The law also calls for enhanced workplace safety standards for meatpacking plants with one hundred or more workers.
- Protections against construction industry wage theft. Under the new law, a contractor entering into a construction contract assumes liability for any unpaid wages, fringe benefits, or damages that a subcontractor owes to its workers.
Bernie Burnham, president of the Minnesota AFL–CIO, heaped praise on the new laws, calling them, “some of the most sweeping pro-labor legislation in state history.” She added that it “will improve the lives of workers in every corner of our state and across every sector.”
Burnham said that the state’s labor unions played a major role in assuring passage of the legislation. “Minnesota has a strong labor movement and we worked hard to advance our legislative priorities,” Burnham said. “We made sure we had the people in place who would help us pass this legislation.”
She said it took months of work. “If you want to work on something to lift up families and lift up the state, you have to talk constantly about how we got what we want and how we get people to knock on doors and talk to legislators. This isn’t just about talking with people at election time. It’s about talking to people all year long, finding out what issues concern them and how we move things along.”
Melissa Hysing, the Minnesota AFL–CIO’s legislative director, added, “Our Democratic legislators are pro-labor Democrats, so it didn’t take much persuasion to get them to back these things.”
Business groups opposed the Paid Family and Medical Leave Law, helping persuade every Republican in the State Senate to vote against it. Corporate lobbyists complained that the law would impose too great a burden on business—employers will have to pay 0.35 percent of their payroll to finance paid leave, while employees will have to contribute 0.35 percent of their paychecks.
John Reynolds, state director of the National Federation of Independent Business in Minnesota, said the paid leave “mandate is a deeply flawed proposal that will cost much more than expected and make it harder for small businesses to keep their doors open.”
Senator Mann said that the business community was crying wolf about how the new law will lead to layoffs. “They’re saying businesses are all going to go out of business and close their doors,” she said. “That hasn’t happened in the eleven other states that have passed paid family and medical leave.” Mann added, “I am someone who believes that, when we lift all boats and make a better jstandard of living for people, I don’t think corporations actually lose. I think we all gain.”
The leave benefits are progressive, with lower-paid workers receiving a greater portion of their pay while taking leave. Under the new law, workers who take paid leave will receive 90 percent of the portion of their weekly wages that is less than or equal to $643.50 (which is 50 percent of the state’s average weekly wage). Workers making more than that will receive 66 percent of their weekly earnings between $643.50 and $1,287 (which is the average weekly wage) and 55 percent of earnings above $1,287. The maximum weekly benefit for those taking leave will be the state’s average weekly wage, $1,287.
Senator McEwen said the new legislation dovetails with Minnesota’s long-time progressive streak. “I would say that the politics of Minnesota historically, and still at the grassroots level among the citizens, is very progressive,” she said. “Our grandparents and great-grandparents were in the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party, which was a historic iteration of the modern Bernie Sanders wing of the modern Democratic Party.”
She continued, “The power of labor unions unfortunately took a real downturn, especially in the beginning of the 1980s, with the Reagan administration. Unfortunately, Minnesota and the rest of the nation have ever since been under the boot of corporate power. But in this new legislative session, things changed, with that 34-to-33 majority. With all the organizing done through labor in Minnesota and with all the coalition work, the groundwork was done and we were ready to make changes.”
McEwen said Democratic lawmakers didn’t vote for all this pro-worker legislation merely for political reasons, but that was certainly part of it. “I think they truly did it because they think it was the right thing to do,” McEwen said. “Those of us who are more progressive say this is exactly how we win the next election. This is what we do. We do the things we promised we would do, and we hope people will say, ‘Please, more of that.’”