This week, the Minnesota Governor signed the Women’s Economic Security Act (“WESA”) into law. The WESA makes a sweeping variety of changes and additions to Minnesota law aimed at protecting women’s economic security. These changes include, among others, modifications to the length of Minnesota parental leave, a new required handbook notice regarding employees’ freedom to discuss wages and benefits, and the addition of a new protected class under the Minnesota Human Rights Act. Many of WESA’s provisions are effective immediately, necessitating changes to handbook policies and practices for most Minnesota employers.
Here’s a short list of some of the more significant aspects of WESA for Minnesota employers that are effective immediately:
· Increased Parental Leave. Employers with 21 or more employees (which includes many employers not subject to the federal Family and Medical Leave Act) are now required to grant up to twelve, instead of the former six, weeks of unpaid parental leave to eligible employees having or adopting a child. Pregnancy is added as a qualifying reason for leave, as are prenatal care and health conditions related to pregnancy or childbirth. Employers may require reasonable notice of the date on which the leave will start and its estimated duration. The leave may now be taken at any time within the twelve months following the birth or adoption of a child; formerly the law required the leave to be granted and taken within six weeks of those events. During parental leave, an employer can require an employee to use any available paid time, such as sick or vacation time.
· Additions to Sick Leave Requirements. Employers with 21 or more employees have been required to allow an employee to use any available sick time to care for a sick or injured child or certain other relatives on the same terms on which the employee could use the time for himself or herself. The list of covered relatives has now been expanded by the WESA to include a mother-in-law, father-in-law, and grandchild (which includes a step-grandchild and a biological, adopted or foster grandchild). In addition, an employee’s sick time can also be used for a “safety leave” for covered relatives for the purpose of providing or receiving assistance due to sexual assault, domestic abuse or stalking.
· Requirement of Reasonable Accommodation for Pregnancy-related Health Conditions. Minnesota employers with 21 or more employees must now make reasonable accommodation for health conditions related to pregnancy when a pregnant employee requests an accommodation with the advice of her health care provider or a certified doula, unless doing so would create an undue hardship. The law requires an employer to engage in an interactive process with the employee requesting an accommodation. An employer is not required to displace another employee as an accommodation, but transfer to a different job may be a potential accommodation.
· Wage Disclosure Protection. WESA makes it unlawful for an employer to require an employee to (1) keep his or her wages confidential as a condition of employment; (2) prohibit employees from discussing their wages or require an employee to sign a waiver or other document denying the employee the right to disclose wages; or (3) to otherwise take any adverse employment action against an employee for disclosing wages. Unlike similar prohibitions under the federal labor law, WESA protects both management and non-management employees. In addition, an employee handbook must now include notice of employee rights and remedies under this section of WESA. An employee may bring a civil court action to enforce this statute and can receive attorney’s fees and damages if successful.
· Nursing Mothers. The law requiring that nursing mothers be given a private place at work to express breast milk has been amended to provide that this location can’t be a bathroom and must be shielded from view and free from intrusion. WESA also adds a non-retaliation provision to the nursing mothers’ statute.
· Familial Status Added to MHRA Protected Classes. Familial status, i.e. being a parent or guardian of a minor, has been added as a protected class under the Minnesota Human Rights Act (MHRA). As such, employers are prohibited from discriminating against an applicant or employee based on familial status.
The following is a summary of some of the key WESA provisions that will go into effect later in 2014:
· Unemployment Compensation and Sexual Assault & Stalking. WESA makes an individual who quits employment as a result of sexual assault or stalking eligible for unemployment benefits. Previously, this provision of unemployment law was limited to domestic abuse situations.
· Equal Pay; Job Development. State contractors with contracts of at least $500,000 must now obtain an equal pay certificate, the requirements for which are detailed in WESA, demonstrating equal pay based on gender. WESA also sets up a new grant program to promote the development of more high wage, high demand, non-traditional jobs for women.
Minnesota employers should engage in a review of their employee handbooks, policies, and practices immediately and make appropriate updates given that most of WESA’s provisions have already taken effect.