As Duluth prepares to require local employers to provide workers with access to up to a week of paid time off to deal with illnesses or other family emergencies starting in January, a number of small-business owners, including Joel Vikre, co-founder of Vikre Distillery, called on the state of Minnesota to take what he called "the next step" — establishing a paid family and medical leave benefit for people who are unable to work for an extended period of time.

"Without an educated, healthy and stable workforce, our business wouldn't exist. That's why we supported earned sick and safe time and implemented our own policy in advance of that law. It is working, and it has provided our staff with security and safety, because people get sick, people's kids get sick and things go wrong," Vikre said.

The benefits of providing increased job security speak for themselves, according to Vikre.

"As an employer, we get healthier, more committed and less stressed staff who are more able to do their work when ESST is there, in case something happens. That said, it is limited. Five days will cover a kid with the flu or the chicken pox, but not cancer and not having a baby. Also, it falls entirely on us, as a business," he said.

Nevertheless, as a small business with limited means, Vikre acknowledged his distillery has fallen short of delivering all he feels it should in the way of employee benefits.

"I said we believe in responsibility, and in the absence of our community taking responsibility for the public good, we have to take responsibility as a small business. We are doing the same with health insurance, but we cannot afford to provide it to the majority of our employees," he said.

Vikre said his distillery is far from alone in its struggle to provide needed benefits and noted that small businesses like his account for nearly half of the nation's jobs, leaving vast numbers of workers largely unprotected in the event that they are unable to work for an extended period of time.

Minnesota House Majority Whip and District 7B Rep. Liz Olson, DFL-Duluth, said the proposed paid leave policy "would go a long way" toward helping constituents in her district. Olson related a recent exchange she had with a sales associate in a local big-box store. Olson said the woman doubled over in pain.

"I asked: 'Are you OK?' And she said: 'You know what? I had a baby a week ago.' As a mom myself, I went pale, and I thought, I cannot believe this woman is back at work. And I asked: 'Well, why wouldn't you just stay home?' And she said: 'I can't afford to stay home, and I can't afford to lose my job.' So that's what we're talking about," Olson said.

District 51B Rep. Laurie Halverson, DFL-St. Paul. said: "The story that Rep. Olson told, as heartbreaking as it is to hear about a woman standing at a cash register a week after she gives birth, that is not an unusual story in Minnesota."

Halverson said one in four Minnesota moms return to work within two weeks of childbirth.

Olson noted that there's an 11-year discrepancy in average life expectancy between neighborhoods she serves in western Duluth and some of the city's more-affluent eastern neighborhoods. She attributed much of that gap to the types of job benefits people receive.

"Yes, we've come a long way as a city with the passage of an earned sick and safe time policy, but we as a state need to step up and do so much more," she said.

Eight other states, as well as the District of Columbia, have voted to provide paid family and medical leave.

"We need an economy that works for everybody when life happens," Halverson said.

District 53 Sen. Susan Kent, DFL-Woodbury, said the state could provide paid family and medical leave insurance with a 0.6% payroll tax, with that cost split between employers and employees.

Each year, an estimated 15,000 Duluth-area residents find it necessary to take a leave from work because of serious medical conditions that last more than a week, said Debra Fitzpatrick, co-director of the University of Minnesota's Center on Women, Gender and Public Policy. Often, she said, workers are forced to forgo pay in the meantime and can find themselves pushed into financial hardship or a premature return to work that endangers their health.

Kent said many larger employers already provide paid leave benefits "because they know they matter."

"They know they're important in recruiting and retaining great talent and supporting their business mission. They don't do it just to be nice. They know it's a good business decision," she said, adding that small businesses often have a tougher time providing the same types of benefits.

Olson noted that the House passed a paid family and medical leave bill last session, but companion legislation could not get a hearing in the Minnesota Senate.

"We're not stopping," she said. "We're going to go back down to the Capitol this February, and we're going to keep pushing until this becomes law."