Judicial Branch Paid Leave Campaign, 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.

Paid leave benefits have been a major topic in union and justice organizing for several years, and the prominence of the issue is only increasing. The logic behind this policy is clear and broadly proven by nonpartisan research: paid leave 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 an omission 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.”

(Read Part 2 of our Judicial Branch campaign story here.)