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Local business owners discuss key legislative issues

WORTHINGTON — The Worthington Area Chamber of Commerce, in conjunction with the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce and local business owners from around the region, gathered Tuesday at JBS to discuss priorities for the 2015 legislative session as part of the Minnesota Chamber’s Statewide Policy Tour.

Jennifer Byers, vice president of grassroots and local chamber relations for the Minnesota Chamber, gave a brief presentation about the 2013 and 2014 legislative sessions. She also asked business owners how what transpired in St. Paul affected them, and what the Chamber can do in 2015 to remedy any problems.

Byers explained that state legislators in 2014 repealed some of the previous year’s tax increases.

“The legislature repealed all three 2013 business-to-business sales taxes that would have totaled $314 million for 2014-2015 alone,” she said. “They also repealed the gift tax, and increased the estate tax threshold from the existing $1 million to $2 million.”

Byers added that the Minnesota Chamber’s stance on the estate tax is that the state should conform to the federal estate threshold of $5 million.

The minimum wage increase was a hot issue for the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce, as well as for Worthington business owners.

Minnesota’s minimum wage will be phased in to $9.50 an hour on Aug. 1, 2016, and it will increase automatically with inflation starting in 2018.

“We (Minnesota Chamber of Commerce) agreed to raise the state minimum wage to the federal rate of $7.25, which aligns with our neighboring states,” Byers said. “Now Minnesota will have the fourth highest minimum wage in the country.”

Change in workplace mandates taking effect in July will alter benefit packages for many employees.

“These new workplace mandates are something that every business owner needs to tell their human resources department to be aware of,” Byers said. “This isn’t something that’s happening in a year from now; it’s happening in two months.”

Employers will have to provide up to 12 weeks of unpaid time for pregnancy, which can be used for up to one year after birth or adoption. Employers must accommodate employees for conditions related to pregnancy or childbirth, unless it presents undue hardship to employers. Familial status is now a protected class under the Minnesota Human Rights Act, which means employers cannot discriminate against employees because they are parents of minor children or are pregnant.

Workers compensation was also addressed at the meeting.

“The workers comp issue is big for us,” said Jennifer Andersen-Martinez, human resources director at JBS. “Currently under the law, people can use pre-existing conditions to be able to get full disability.

“We’ve had the case where we had an employee that had an amputation, so they got a percentage (of disability) working at JBS,” she explained. “Then what they had before allowed them to become permanently disabled, and so we had to fully compensate them. So it’s kind of a loophole.”

Byers also discussed education and a workforce gap that is largely growing, especially in manufacturing and technical industries.

“From our perspective in 2013, the Legislature moved backward,” she said. “In Minnesota now you no longer need to pass a grad test, so from our perspective we think there needs to be some sort of measurement. If not the grad test, it should be something else.”

Byers also endorsed students taking part in post-secondary enrollment options as student debt and costs of going to college continue to soar.

District 518 Superintendent John Landgaard said schools have no say in whether students opt to go the PSEO route.

“Not all students are ready for PSEO,” Landgaard said. “An easy example is we had one student that was a very smart student, but went on vacation and almost didn’t graduate. The problem that happens is the parents were mad at us because we didn’t monitor the kid, but yet we have no access or ability to monitor them.”

Andersen-Martinez discussed the workforce gap and how JBS is struggling to educate people on the careers offered at the company.

“We need to find some way to educate parents about these being viable careers,” she said. “As baby boomers are retiring, we’re struggling significantly to fill those positions and remedy this issue.”

Landgaard said the district is making strides in guiding some students toward a manufacturing career, a two-year degree or certificate as opposed to a four-year college.

“We’re fortunate that we have a career education class that helps students channel them in a certain direction, and we work closely with Minnesota West to implement technical classes,” he said.

Health care was yet another issue broached. With the federal Affordable Care Act, many business owners are playing a waiting game as to what the law will mean for them.

“You are unable to require publication of health care premium rates earlier than Nov. 15,” Byers said. “In previous years rates were made public in September, so employers and employees could plan for changes in cost and coverage.”

Judy Rieckhoff, owner of Worthington’s Ground Round, said the change in the rates timetable has caused some worry.

“There’s not enough information because you don’t know what the rates are in advance and they’re talking about changing the definition of a full-time worker, which I hope they do,” Rieckhoff said. “It’s just a moving target.”

The Minnesota Chamber of Commerce plans to take suggestions and comments to the Capitol in 2015 as part of its mission to bring positive changes to business owners. It continues its Statewide Policy Tour today in Thief River Falls.

Daily Globe Reporter Erin Trester may be reached at 376-7322.

Erin Trester
Erin Trester is the crime and city reporter for the Daily Globe. She's a native of Lewiston, MN, but moved to Buffalo, NY to attend college and obtained her bachelor's degree in Communications. She started at the Western New York Catholic Newspaper as a reporter in Buffalo, but in October 2013 she returned to her home state to start with the Daily Globe. Most of her spare time is taken up by her 13-year-old thoroughbred named Faith, but some of her other hobbies include reading, fishing and spending time with friends and family. 
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