By BRIAN BAKST
ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) _ Despite pleas from business to slow down, the Minnesota House gave final approval Wednesday to a women’s employment rights bill that supporters say will level the playing field.
New parents would be entitled to longer unpaid leaves. Mothers would find more private space at work to nurse, other than a restroom stall. And large state contractors would have to certify they pay men and women similar salaries for similar jobs.
The House approved the bill on a 104-24 vote. Signoff by the Senate later in the week would send it to Gov. Mark Dayton, who is supportive.
Rep. Carly Melin, DFL-Hibbing, said the package helps target “the motherhood gap” in employment where advocates believe pay is held down or advancement is sometimes denied because employers doubt the abilities of those workers to juggle family and career.
Before passage, Republicans urged their House colleagues to reopen negotiations to clear up what they and business groups saw as ambiguities that might make the laws difficult to enforce and invite costly lawsuits.
“We failed in our job if this actually results in litigation,” said Rep. Sarah Anderson, R-Plymouth.
All Democrats and many in the GOP voted for the bill in the end.
The bill is a key agenda item for majority party Democrats, who are mirroring a national drive by President Barack Obama and congressional Democrats to highlight workplace inequities. Several Republicans in the Legislature have joined in the Minnesota push, though others regard it as too much government interference in the private sector.
A central element is to let employees _ men or women _ take 12 weeks instead of the current six for pregnancy and parenting leave in conjunction with a child’s birth or adoption. It would put Minnesota among a small set of states allowing leave of three months or more.
Employers must make reasonable accommodations for pregnant workers when it comes to restroom use, limits on lifting and water breaks. The bill adds “familial status” to laws guarding against unfair employment practices, meaning bosses couldn’t use someone’s parental status against them when making promotion decisions.
Melin said many employers offer pregnancy and family accommodations more generous than the legislation requires, but not all.
“All women, no matter where they work, should have those type of protections,” she said.
In a letter to lawmakers Wednesday, the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce said “several significant concerns remain” and urged more refinement before a final vote.
Specifically, the chamber said reporting and auditing requirements around the equal pay certification are confusing and could raise the cost of public contracts. The bill requires firms of 40 or more employees with state contracts exceeding $500,000 pledge that workers in various job categories don’t have pay disparities by gender. Those that don’t meet the requirement could see their contracts voided.
Rep. Jenifer Loon, R-Eden Prairie, said she worried the requirement would discourage companies from bidding on state work.
“It may not be worth the hassle,” she said. “We’re not just going after bad actors.”
Bill Blazar, the chamber’s senior vice president, said the “familial status” could too easily provoke lawsuits or trigger complaints under the Minnesota Human Rights Act.
“This has nothing to do with performance at work; It has to do with discrimination,” she said.