Lawmakers aim to reintroduce paid family leave program

By Alexandra Kautzman

N.D. Newspaper Association Education Foundation

BISMARCK – Rep. Karla Rose Hanson, D-Fargo, said that she plans to modify and reintroduce a bill for a state-facilitated paid family leave program, a proposal which failed in 2019. 

The bill would have required businesses with more than 49 employees to contribute to a fund that would cover employees on leave for personal medical reasons or to care for a family member. Both the employee and the employer would contribute two cents for every $10 of wages.

“The problem we are trying to solve is that too many families have to face a choice between either caring for themselves or a loved one during a major event or going without a paycheck,” Hanson said.  

Hanson said this problem has not gone away and has been highlighted during the COVID-19 pandemic with employees having to quarantine or look after sick family members.

She also said that this would help local businesses attract and retain a talented workforce as the benefits would incentivize employees to stay.

“We have a workforce issue in our state,” Hanson said. “This is a solution to finding a way to retain talented employees rather than lose them to one of these events because they face this choice.”

Hanson said the modified bill would have a similar financial structure, starting with a loan from Legacy Fund earnings that would be paid off after 20 years.

“The loan would be an investment into one of our major priorities as a state,” Hanson said. “I think we, as a state, want to encourage more entrepreneurism and more diversity in our economy and this is a tool to help that.” 

Sen. Erin Oban, D-Bismarck, was a co-sponsor of the 2019 bill. She said she is familiar with the difficult choice others had to make. After her father was diagnosed with terminal cancer, her mother became his full-time caregiver until his death. During that time, Erin Oban also struggled to find childcare for her adopted newborn.

“I think about if that was my husband, if that was a situation where I had to be the full-time caregiver or pay somebody to do that and not be with my loved one during the last months before their death. I don’t want to face that decision,” Oban said. 

“I think about all of the people with whom I serve. I think about who they would want next to them whenever that time is and for their families not to have to make that decision between paying their mortgage and being with a loved one in a time of need.”

The legislators said they continue to work on how the program would be implemented, responding to concerns about it being a mandate. Rather, they want to make it available as a viable option for employees and employers across the state. 

“One thing we heard a lot was, ‘The businesses can decide to provide this for themselves.’ But they don’t,” Hanson said. “The bottom line is that some North Dakota businesses certainly do provide these benefits, but not all of them do. Our goal is to ensure that this is available as an option to anyone who might want to tap into this.” 

Oban said they are working to address and accommodate other concerns that were raised last session and are finalizing details before they introduce the bill this session. She said she hopes that after experiencing the pandemic, fellow lawmakers will see a greater need for the program.

“We’re trying to come at it at all angles and understand everybody’s perspective and just try to increase the chances of support and understanding from those who’d be implementing it,” Oban said.