Minnesota Democrats made the most of their slim  majority in the state legislature this session by enacting a sweeping legislative agenda that included paid family and medical leave, and student parent success initiatives that promote gender equity in the workplace and in higher education institutions. Thanks to their efforts, $670 million from the state’s budget surplus will now go toward a new paid leave program, the first of its kind among Midwestern states. 

The new law features innovative and inclusive definitions of eligible leave events and family and includes creative compromises on small business and seasonal employee exemptions that extend benefits to most Minnesotans. Workers in Minnesota will be eligible for paid leave for up to 12 weeks per event, and up to 20 weeks total in a calendar year and leave is not required to be taken consecutively. Wage replacement eligibility is also determined on a sliding income scale: Those who earn half of the state’s average weekly wage receive 90% wage replacement, and those earning more are eligible for 55% of their regular pay. Employers may choose to offer a greater wage replacement rate. 

Contributions to the state program fund are split between employers and employees and begin as a .07% payroll tax. The premium—capped at 1.2%—is subject to increase, but not before January 2027. Those who are self-employed and independent contractors are also eligible to buy into the program. Contributions and benefits start January 1, 2026 but applications can be submitted in advance to avoid overburdening the program at its onset. 

Minnesotans are eligible for paid leave when caring for themselves or family, which is broadly defined to include anyone with whom there is a clear reliance relationship, regardless of family ties or housing connections. This definition of family mirrors Washington’s approach, and is intended to include LGBTQ+ workers and workers of color whose families are less likely to fit within the confines of traditional definitions. The program also covers medical, parental, caregiving, deployment and safety leave for domestic violence related events.

In response to pushback from small businesses and the hospitality industry, lawmakers offset the financial burden with an income-linked exemption for small businesses and an opt-in exemption for employers with seasonal workers. Employers approved for an exemption will be listed in the program’s annual report as a transparency and accountability measure.

Nationwide, over one-third of full-time employed women lack access to paid sick leave. Paid family leave is not available to 65.2% of all workers in the United States, IWPR research found. Federal medical and family leave provides some job protection, but remains unpaid. That’s why state paid leave programs like Minnesota’s are so important: they make it so workers can actually afford to take the leave they’re entitled to when caring for themselves or loved ones. Still, advocates expect they’ll have to defend the law again next session as technical revisions are likely and any opportunity for amendments could re-open debate on the compromises reached this session.

Another area where Minnesota legislators secured significant advances is support for student parents in higher education. In the state budget this year, Minnesota legislators allocated $6 million to a student parent support initiative, a significant investment in a program previously established in 2010 with Affordable Care Act funds. 

The bolstered program provides grants to postsecondary education institutions to support student parents who make up 22% of the national undergraduate student population, according to IWPR research. Grant funds will be used to provide campus services to student parents as they navigate the unique barriers they face as they strive to earn their degree while parenting. Postsecondary institutions can potentially utilize grant funds to start on-campus child care, provide direct assistance to student parents, and for scholarships. The initiative also requires participating institutions to collect and annually report data on student parents. The largest share of student parents attends community college, so these institutions have significant potential to serve and positively impact student parents. 

IWPR’s research indicates that 68 percent of student parents live with incomes near or below the federal poverty threshold, and Black student parents hold more student debt than student parents of any other racial group. Childcare and housing costs compounded with student debt make affording education more challenging for student parents and can lead to delayed degree completion and even drop-out. State governments and higher education institutions can do more to meet the needs of student parents and promote their success by investing in programs like Minnesota’s Student Parent Support Initiative. 

Paid family and medical leave and student parent success grants benefit nearly all workers and student parents in the state. Since women are disproportionately caregivers and parents pursuing postsecondary education, such programs also play a key role in advancing gender equity. Minnesota’s exciting legislative session moved the needle for women in both the workplace and in higher education, and there is potential for that momentum to continue next session heading into an election year.