Judicial Branch employees fight for Paid Parental Leave

Part 1: “It should be equal.”

During business hours, Crystal Roquette keeps the wheels of justice moving smoothly. She’s a senior court clerk in Washington County Court Scheduling Division, where she’s worked for the past seven years.

After a full work day, Crystal turns her attention to her busy home of six. With four children under the age of 10, this can be more daunting than the business of administering justice to thousands of Minnesotans in her day job.

As a professional and a mom of young kids, Crystal knows how difficult it is to balance work with parenthood. When she had her kids, she relied on vacation and sick leave, combined with supplemental insurance for short term disability.

But even that wasn’t enough. When she had her youngest child, who is now three years old, her insurance coverage should have given her twelve weeks to be home with her newborn. But an unexpected layoff at her husband’s job made finances tight, and she had to go back to work two weeks early to make ends meet.

“After a baby, it’s important to bond with them, and it’s really important for you to heal,” said Crystal. “As women we do it all – we do the laundry, we cook, we clean, we do everything – we are good multitaskers. But when we push ourselves, we delay our healing.”

That’s why Crystal, and dozens of other Judicial Branch employees, are on a mission to get paid parental leave benefits included in their next contract. Negotiations began earlier this month and will continue into early July.

The logic behind paid family leave is clear: it helps employees, their families, and their employers. Countless studies show that paid parental leave decreases infant mortality rates, boosts babies’ lifelong health prospects, and help close the wage gap between men and women. For employers, paid parental leave helps recruit new employers, reduces turnover, and increases productivity for employees when they return to work.

That’s why, in 2016, Governor Mark Dayton and then-Lt. Governor Tina Smith announced their plan to provide up to six weeks of paid parental leave to all state employees. The Dayton administration signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with all the unions who represent state employees, including AFSCME Council 5. The Minnesota Legislature ratified the agreement, and bargaining units set about integrating the policy into their contracts. All state agencies were instructed to proactively reach out to all employees notifying them that they were now eligible for paid parental leave.

But though the push from the Dayton administration strengthened workers’ hands in bargaining, paid family leave still had to be secured – painstakingly – through dozens of separate contracts. Right now, the Judicial Branch is the only state employer that does not provide any paid parental leave. Given that the vast majority of Judicial Branch employees are women, this is a glaring omission.

It’s so glaring that many assume Judicial Branch workers already have paid parental leave. “It hit the news a year and a half ago that all state employees” would get the benefit, Crystal said. “Some new hires have said one of the reasons they took the job was because they heard that state employees got this benefit.”

The inequality between the state’s Executive and Judicial Branches feels fundamentally unfair. “One branch of government has the benefit, and one doesn’t,” said Crystal. “If you’re working for the state, it should be equal.”

As the Judicial Branch experiences major changes in staffing, the issue of recruitment and retention becomes increasingly critical. As long-term employees who have served in the Judicial Branch for decades retire, those essential roles in the justice system need to be filled by new employees. As an employer, the Judicial Branch needs to offer a competitive compensation and benefits plan to attract top talent.

“We want people to come into this field to stay in this field," said Crystal. “It’s a really good job, and we want new people to come in, be happy, and stay.”

Part 2: “I need to do what’s best for my family.”

The fight for paid family leave within the Judicial Branch includes lots of women who have already had their children. But others are fighting for a program that would help their families immediately. Jessica Gongoll, an employee in Sherburne County, has a one-year-old son – and she and her husband plan to expand their family soon.

Jessica started her Judicial career in Anoka County, but took a job with Sherburne County about one year ago for a more family-friendly work schedule. Her husband, a Law Enforcement Officer with a local department, works very late – and very early – shifts. This means Jessica is primarily responsible for taking care of their son until she goes to work, when she takes their baby to daycare.

It’s challenging, but it works. This time around, though, Jessica and her family need more stability.

Jessica knows she will need significant time to recover; she delivered her son via C-section, and her doctor has advised her that she can expect the same for future deliveries. Jessica has also suffered miscarriages in the past, so reducing stress and anxiety is crucial for a safe and healthy second pregnancy.

“It was very stressful for me to try and figure everything out with the first one,” said Jessica. “I’m not a crier, but it was almost to the point where I was in tears trying to figure it out. It kind of ruins some of the excitement as you prepare for the baby.”

The other challenge Jessica will need to figure out before baby #2 is childcare. In Sherburne County, childcare options are expensive – and limited. Jessica and her husband have secured a coveted spot at a local daycare center for their son, but there's a catch: if they don’t use that spot, they lose it. If Jessica had paid leave, this would be a minor issue. But without it, her family will have to cover expensive childcare costs on just one income, or risk lose their son’s spot permanently.

Having stable benefits to count on – rather than the patchwork coverage she and her coworkers have now – would allow Jessica to focus on preparing for the new arrival rather than getting buried in paperwork.

“If there was a clear cut policy, I would know exactly what to do and it would be a lot more clear,” said Jessica. “I need this process to be fairly simple so I’m not stressed out and the baby’s not stressed out.”

For most of the public, the paid family leave benefits Judicial Branch members need are a no-brainer. 84% of voters support a national paid family and medical leave policy that covers all working people. More than 20 states have paid leave bills moving through their legislatures. Many states, including New York, Connecticut, and Colorado, have passed laws offering paid family and medical leave benefits to all their residents – not just public employees.

Some companies are even leading the way in offering paid parental leave, and the reason is simple: it’s good for business. Top companies include paid parental leave as a way to recruit and retain employees, especially younger candidates who could have long and fulfilling careers with their companies. It also helps their bottom line; without paid leave, many people – especially women - find it impossible to balance work and family, forcing them to leave the workforce entirely. Employers are the ones who lose out when parents are forced to take their time and talents out of the economy.

So why is Minnesota’s Judicial Branch lagging behind both the public and private sector in providing this essential benefit?

It’s a tough question to answer because Minnesota’s Judicial Branch is managed through an opaque and confusing process. Management decisions are made by the Judicial Council, a small group of judges headed by Supreme Court Chief Justice Lori Gildea. The decisions made by the Council are then administered by the courts administrator. This position doesn’t just implement the Council’s decisions – it also leads the negotiations to create the contracts approved by the Council. In discussions at the negotiating table, it’s not often clear who’s responsible for approving – or, in this case, blocking – common-sense policies like paid parental leave. This process is anything but transparent, and it leaves employees with little understanding of how and why management decisions are made.

To make matters worse, Judicial Branch employees are spread out across the state, and they are not often encouraged to communicate across branches or worksites. Management even uses members’ commitment to fairness against them – by claiming that advocating for themselves is somehow “political”, management stifles their ability to organize.

The lack of transparency from management and limitations on inter-employee cooperation could help explain how the Judicial Branch ended up with one of the least generous compensation and benefits packages in state government.

The Judicial Branch's contract does not include any step raises, i.e. raises to compensate the experience of long-term employees. Instead, raises are given based on a subjective “performance” metric. Last year, only a small percentage of employees were deemed deserving of an “exceeds expectations” raise – which barely kept up with inflation.

Court employees will tell you that they chose their jobs to serve the public, not to bring home a big paycheck. Still, with salaries much lower than positions in other agencies and much more limited benefits, some members wonder if their passion for justice is being exploited.

“Folks look at this and go, if I can’t get paid leave and I’m making less, why wouldn’t I go?” said Jessica. “I really enjoy my job, but at the end of the day I need to do what’s best for my family.”

Part 3: “Once the baby gets here, I will have nothing.”

Few benefits are so impactful – and so urgent – as paid family leave. Every year that paid family leave gets left on the bargaining table, more babies are born into families who can’t afford to spend their first few weeks at home. Dawn DeCock, a five-year employee with the Wright Country Judicial System, is pregnant with her third child, due in September. If the Judicial Branch doesn’t get Paid Parental Leave this year, her family will have to make sacrifices to get by - without a benefit that all other state employees can count on.

With the clock ticking, Dawn is hopeful but planning for all possibilities. “You try to have a plan, but there are always surprises,” said Dawn. She is struggling to plan, not just for time off, but for life after the baby arrives. This is especially challenging because in the Judicial Branch, employees must use all their sick time before they can access any other benefits, even unpaid ones like FMLA. This means that once she returns to work after maternity leave, she will not be able to take any more time off to handle illnesses in the family.

“When you put your baby in daycare they get sick often,” she said. “You’re basically left with nothing to use.” In the two years since her son was born, Dawn has managed to save up 30 hours of sick time, which will only get her through prenatal appointments. “Once the new baby gets here, I will have nothing,” she said.

Crystal, Jessica, and Dawn are just three of the hundreds of women employed by the State of Minnesota who are balancing work and family. But unlike Executive Branch employees, these women can’t count on the Paid Family Leave benefits they were promised over two years ago. Judicial Branch employees live in a shadow, neglected in the implementation of a policy secured in the public discourse, but not at the bargaining table. With their contracts controlled by a narrow and mostly unaccountable governing body, they have few options for appeal.

The process leaves Judicial Branch members feeling unheard and misunderstood. To make matters worse, management has repeatedly said dismissive or hurtful things about members’ efforts to get better benefits. Jessica reported learning that a member of management’s negotiating team said, “If you guys get this [Paid Parental Leave], people will think your benefits are too good.”

“That stuck with me because I feel like, you’re not in touch with your people and what they need,” said Jessica.

When members of our labor family are being left behind because bosses are stingy and elected officials are slow to react, we stand up and fight back. That’s why we’re joining together to support Judicial Branch members as they head into their second round of negotiations.

Show your support for your labor siblings – share this story on social media. Let’s send a message that we all deserve fairness, opportunity, and dignity in the workplace.