BISMARCK — With another legislative session comes another discussion about paid family medical leave, and lawmakers on both sides of the aisle are proposing legislation to either implement or prohibit paid family leave in North Dakota.

On Wednesday, Feb. 3, lawmakers held their first hearing for House Bill 1441, which would establish a statewide, opt-in paid family leave program.

The program would create a fund for eligible employees to be paid during time taken off for scenarios such as serious medical or mental health conditions for themselves or family members, the care of a child during the first year after their birth, adoption, or beginning date of foster care and time off for the employee or their family members who are victims of sexual abuse, domestic violence or sex trafficking.

"This will allow people to take care of themselves, their new child or a loved one without having to leave their job permanently or without having to struggle financially if they stay in their job but choose to take time off without pay," said Rep. Karla Rose Hanson, D-Fargo, the bill's primary sponsor.

An employee participating in the program could take up to 12 weeks of paid leave that would provide up to 66% of their weekly salary with a $1,000 cap per week. An employee can take the leave intermittently and must work at least 500 hours in their position in order to qualify to use the leave.

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Hanson proposed a similar bill in 2019 that failed, but with several alterations, including giving employers and employees the choice to participate in the program, she said she's hoping this one will garner more support.

The funds to pay for the medical leave would start with a $5 million loan from North Dakota's Legacy Fund, and the rest would be paid for with employee and employer participatory contributions.

If an employee decides to enroll in the paid family leave program, they would give 6 cents out of every $10 made in wages to the paid family leave fund, and an employer can decide to pay for all or part of the employee's contributions. An employer that decides to participate would receive a tax credit as an incentive.

Under federal law, the Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993 requires employers to offer workers 12 weeks of unpaid, job-protected leave to care for newborns or family members. As of December 2020, at least nine states and Washington, D.C., have enacted some form of paid family medical leave, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation.

Throughout Wednesday's hearing, Hanson emphasized the proposed paid family leave program was voluntary, but leaders of small business organizations still had concerns.

Matt Gardner, director of government affairs for the Greater North Dakota Chamber, said the program would disrupt the free market, as many businesses already offer paid family leave and more are opting to do so for their employees.

"If this program is offered by the state, how many employers would opt in to use this program instead of the one they're fully funding themselves?" Gardner questioned.

Some lawmakers are even further opposed to paid family leave.

On Thursday, Feb. 4, the Legislature will hold its first hearing on House Bill 1398, which would prohibit local governments from enacting any law that requires employers to provide paid family leave beyond federal or state stipulations.

However, the push to establish a paid family leave program in North Dakota has multiple supporters, including the American Civil Liberties Union of North Dakota.

"Passing House Bill 1441 would be a momentous civil rights victory for North Dakota," the ACLU said in a release Wednesday.

Rachel Richter Lordemann, president of the Williston Area Chamber of Commerce, said the program would be beneficial for businesses.

"This optional paid family leave program would provide North Dakota businesses an incredible tool to help attract and retain employees," Richter Lordemann said. "Paid family leave can often be seen as a corporate luxury. However, this bill provides a flexible or no-cost option for businesses of any size."

The House Industry, Business and Labor Committee did not vote on a recommendation on Wednesday.

Readers can reach Forum News Service reporter Michelle Griffith, a Report for America corps member, at mgriffith@forumcomm.com.

House Bill 1441 by inforumdocs on Scribd

House Bill 1398 by inforumdocs on Scribd