DFL pushes Paid Family and Medical Leave program to the finish line

Proponents say it addresses a critical need; critics say it imposes too great a burden on small businesses.

Lindsey Wohlsdorf reads with her two kids Cameron, 9, and Riley, 5, on Monday, Feb. 6, 2023, at their home in Rochester.
Traci Westcott / Post Bulletin

ROCHESTER — When Rochester resident Lindsey Wohlsdorf was pregnant with her first child, she had a plan to make it work financially.

Wohlsdorf is a high school Spanish teacher for Lake City Public Schools. The district doesn't have a maternity leave policy, but it does allow employees to save up and use accumulated sick days. So for several years, Wohlsdorf patiently and painstakingly saved up as many days as she could — allowing her to be paid while on leave giving birth and taking care of her first child.

It didn’t turn out as she planned. Her son was born in December 2013, but it was a “really bad delivery” as Wohlsdorf suffered severe obstetric injuries. Her plan to protect her family financially unraveled as she exhausted her banked sick days, forcing her into weeks of unpaid leave.

Surgery to repair Wohlsdorf's injuries from childbirth necessitated more weeks of unpaid time off.

In addition to the hardships associated with being first-time parents — no sleep, trying to figure out nursing — there was growing financial distress. Wohlsdorf’s smaller paychecks as the result of her unpaid leave occurred even as her family's expenses climbed, including those for child care and medical bills totaling $12,000 from two medical deductibles.


Wohlsdorf, the mother of two boys now, shares her poignant story as a paid family and medical bill working its way through the Minnesota Legislature would have spared Wohlsdorf from some of her family's financial ordeal, DFL legislators say.

“I felt very isolated at the time, and I felt like my first year of motherhood had been robbed from me,” Wohlsdorf said. “I was supposed to be enjoying my time with my son, and instead I spent a ton of time at the doctor and recovering at home, all with less money coming and high medical bills.”

Lindsey Wohlsdorf plays with her two kids Riley, 5, and Cameron, 9, on Monday, Feb. 6, 2023, at their home in Rochester.
Traci Westcott / Post Bulletin

The program being proposed would have not cured or alleviated all the hardships and challenges her young family faced. But it would have lessened some of the financial precariousness, as the program would have guaranteed a more robust paycheck.

Currently, there are both House and Senate versions of the bill, which differ slightly. There is also a proposed bill from the governor's office.

The governor's proposal has a startup cost of $668 million. That amount would fund the account initially and start the program.

The proposal would provide for up to 24 weeks of paid leave. Those 24 weeks would be split into 12 weeks for family leave to, for example, care for a new child or a seriously ill or dying relative and 12 weeks for medical leave for an individual, for example, recovering from pregnancy complications.

The governor's version of the program would levy a 0.6% payroll tax on businesses to pay for the program, which could be shared by employers and employees. The taxes, estimated at $1.2 million for the first year, would go into a state-administered fund. And workers could get up to 70% of their wages while on leave, depending on their income.

Currently, only an estimated 24% of Minnesota workers have access to paid family or medical leave programs through their employers or access to disability insurance, legislators say.


Lindsey Wohlsdorf makes dinner while her two kids Cameron, 9, and Riley, 5, not pictured, play on Monday, Feb. 6, 2023, at their home in Rochester.
Traci Westcott / Post Bulletin

Small businesses and employers don't have to participate in the state program as long as their leave policies are equal to or more generous than the state proposal.

“It will make a meaningful difference (in people’s lives), because it will allow people to stay home, to take care of themselves and their loved ones,” said state Sen. Liz Boldon, DFL-Rochester, one of the bill’s co-authors.

Paid family leave has been on the DFL agenda in past sessions. Bills on the topic have passed in the House before, stalling in the GOP-controlled Senate. But the last election gave the DFL unitary control of state government with a one-vote majority in the Senate, opening a pathway for the legislation.

Gov. Tim Walz and DFL legislative leaders have vowed to make family and medical leave a priority.

Business concerns

The proposal faces headwinds from business groups locally and statewide, including the Rochester Area Chamber of Commerce and the National Federation of Independent Businesses, who argue it is an onerous imposition on small businesses.

Ryan Parsons, Rochester chamber president, calls the proposed mandate a “one-size-fit all, state-administered program” that would be harmful to businesses and employees.

Both leaves — 12 weeks of paid family leave and 12 weeks of paid medical leave — can be stacked. That could result in an employee missing up to 24 weeks, nearly half a year of work, at a time of an acute worker shortage, he said.

“In a time where businesses face workforce shortages and have challenges in attracting talent, the passing of this legislation would leave an employer with a temporary position to fill,” Parsons said in an email. “Workforce shortages are already a strain on Minnesota businesses, and (this proposal) would add to those challenges.”


Ryan Parsons, president of the Rochester Area Chamber of Commerce, speaks during an announcement event April 27, 2021, at the Rochester International Airport in Rochester.
Joe Ahlquist / Post Bulletin file photo

Proponents and critics of the proposal largely diverge on what they perceive to be the proposal’s long-term consequences.

Eleven states in the U.S. have such policies. Business groups opposed to the proposal argue that compared to other states, the Minnesota program would be more expensive. They say it would be a drag on small businesses still trying to dig themselves out of a COVID-driven economic rut.

Already a need

DFL supporters counter that the bill presents small businesses with a relatively cheap way to offer such a benefit, compared to buying such insurance on the private market.

The contribution from employers would be less than $4 per week for each worker into a fund. Thus, a small business with five workers would pay less than $20 per week into the fund, so an employee could take 12 weeks of leave, supporters say.

Sen. Alice Mann, DFL-Edina, the bill’s primary author in the Senate, said it will make small businesses more competitive in the hunt for workers, because they will be able to offer a benefit that bigger companies already offer. It puts them on the “same playing field as the bigger businesses," she said.

“This bill does not create a need for leave. That need already exists,” Mann said. “It’s answering the question: How do we take care of those people when they have to leave?”

Questioning the estimates

John Reynolds, director of the Minnesota chapter of the National Federation of Independent Businesses, calls the 0.6% payroll tax “really a shot in the dark.” He predicts the policy will prove to be more expensive than forecast because it combines a relatively generous wage benefit with an estimated utilization rate that he argues is low.

John Reynolds new state director.jpg
John Reynolds
Contributed / National Federation of Independent Businesses

Last year’s fiscal note, he said, estimated a utilization rate for Minnesota workers of 6.6 weeks per year. That rate is significantly lower than what other states, such as Massachusetts and Washington, have experienced.


“If you look at the underlying assumptions and the fiscal note, and you look at actual utilization data in Washington and Massachusetts, for example, it doesn’t really line up,” Reynolds said.

Recent history, moreover, shows Minnesota's batting average when it comes to projecting the costs of new public programs isn’t great. He cites the debacle of Minnesota Licensing and Registration System, a 10-year, $100 million effort that was eventually scrapped in favor of a new driver’s license system, as an example how the state can be wildly off of the mark.

“We believe it’s going to be the most expensive paid family and medical leave insurance program for small businesses in the country,” Reynolds said.

Reynolds also argues that Minnesota should take a cue from states that have exempted small businesses from elements of their programs. Some, for example, don’t require businesses of a certain size to pay their portion of the premium while still allowing them to access the program.

“The average small business is just different from your average big box retailer,” he said. “They’re just starting so much further away from the requirements of the bill than your average large company.”

State Rep. Alice Mann, DFL-Edina, speaks at a Minnesota House Environment and Natural Resources Policy Committee meeting on March 11, 2020.
Matthew Guerry / Forum News Service file photo

Mann disagrees with this analysis. She sees the measure as an opportunity for small business to become both more competitive in the marketplace and for employees. It would not only level the playing field between small businesses and big companies, but alleviate the state’s workforce shortage. The reason: Workers tend to return to work faster in states with paid leave, she says studies show. In those that don’t have such a program, workers leave the workforce and don’t come back.

“In the long term, having a new program is going to help our workforce shortage crisis, because people go back to work,” Mann said.

Impact statement

Rochester's Toni Kay Mangskau has been a proponent of the program for several years. A social worker in health care, Mangskau is part of a rapid response team aimed at promoting paid leave through the telling of personal stories.


Toni Ray Mangskau
Toni Ray Mangskau with a photo of her late mother Barbara Hatcher on Tuesday, Jan. 31, 2023, in Rochester. Mangskau's mother died in a nursing home largely unattended. Toni Ray Mangska says a family leave policy would have changed that. "I have to change this to honor her," Mangskau said.
Traci Westcott / Post Bulletin

Mangskau’s mom was living in a Rochester senior living center during the pandemic when staffing levels were low. In declining health and suffering from cancer, she decided to forgo any further cancer treatments.

Her children had vainly tried to get her into Seasons Hospice, where she would have gotten more care, but it would have cost $300 a day in out-of-pocket costs. They weren’t allowed to use federal medical assistance to pay for her room and board, Mangskau said.

Because the nursing facility where her mom was staying was short staffed during the pandemic, her mom didn't get the care she needed. Near the end, all she wanted was ice water.

Mangskau said she and a couple of siblings were trying to juggle their schedules, to find out who among them could get a day off from work to tend to their mom. But she ended up dying alone.

“I just feel like I failed her,” Mangskau said, “because she had a miserable, miserable death and did not have the attention she needed.

“This year, paid family medical leave has got to pass, because my siblings and I would not have been juggling our work schedules. We would have been taking time off to be there for her,” she said.

Toni Ray Mangskau
Toni Ray Mangskau with a photo of her late mother Barbara Hatcher on Tuesday, Jan. 31, 2023, in Rochester. Mangskau's mother died in a nursing home largely unattended. Toni Ray Mangska says a family leave policy would have changed that. "I have to change this to honor her," Mangskau said.
Traci Westcott / Post Bulletin

Matthew Stolle has been a Post Bulletin reporter since 2000 and covered many of the beats that make up a newsroom. In his first several years, he covered K-12 education and higher education in Rochester before shifting to politics. He has also been a features writer. Today, Matt jumps from beat to beat, depending on what his editor and the Rochester area are producing in terms of news. Readers can reach Matthew at 507-281-7415 or
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