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Local View: For workers, businesses, Minnesota needs paid family and medical leave

From the column: "It’s such an essential benefit that all employees should have access."

Vikre Distillery
Joel Vikre and his wife Emily sit with their five-month-old son Espen and Squid the dog in their distillery in Canal Park. (Photo by Teri Cadeau)

At first glance, beautifully crafted cocktails inspired by the overwhelming magic of northern Minnesota’s waterscapes do not appear to be remotely related to the concept of a quality, affordable, and well-administered paid family and medical leave (PFML) program. But we’ll let you in on a little secret: The two are much more related than you may think.

Like everyone in their busy lives, we wear multiple hats. First and foremost, we’re parents to two young children. On top of that, we’re also the founders and owners of a small distillery in our beloved home city of Duluth, as well as dedicated employers to a team of incredible employees, many of whom have children and families of their own. Through these various roles, we have interacted with many angles of paid family and medical leave throughout the years.

As new parents, we learned how necessary paid family leave can be when our youngest son was born and needed heart surgery at 5 days old. When surgery complications required us to remain in the Twin Cities for three months, away from work and our home, we were able to take paid leave to manage the situation. As small-business owners, we have prioritized providing paid family and medical leave to our employees ever since.

We have experienced firsthand the positive impact a PFML program has on financial security, familial flexibility, employee well-being, operational stability, and more. We have provided these benefits, despite how expensive and administratively difficult it is for Minnesota small businesses to afford. It’s such an essential benefit that all employees should have access. Flexibility and financial support when emergencies arise are critical to community well-being. To this day, we have no clue what we would have done in our son’s situation had we not had that flexibility.

The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has only further highlighted how challenging it is for small businesses to support their employees through benefits like PFML without risking significant financial impacts. As a small business, we provided extensive paid leave to enable our employees to quarantine, so that they wouldn't have to make a decision between their economic well-being and following public-health guidelines. Being the sole safety net for employees is a huge burden to carry at any time, much less in an historic, once-in-a-generation pandemic.

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This is all why a cohesive, government-funded program for paid family and medical leave is needed. A reasonable, dependable program that serves as a support system for all Minnesotans — not something that is piecemeal or varies by employer — just makes sense.

Economically, it prevents the fully avoidable loss of productivity and creativity by retaining quality employees. From a moral standpoint, it’s simply the humane thing to do. People need, and deserve, to be taken care of when the unexpected happens.

When we originally set out to create an innovative distillery offering superior spirits, we were indeed inspired by the awe-inducing grandeur of northern Minnesota. But as small-business owners, we were also passionate about creating meaningful, well-paying jobs that support the people we deeply care about here in Duluth. We can continue to fulfill our dream because of the beauty and humanity of the people — our employees and their families, our customers, our business partners, and those in our community — who keep us here and happy.

It is time to implement a government-funded PFML program for Minnesota’s small businesses to easily access so we can care for our people in return.

Emily and Joel Vikre of Duluth are owners of Vikre Distillery , a member of Main Street Alliance (mainstreetalliance.org), a nonprofit network of small business owners.

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