Judicial Branch Paid Leave Campaign, Part 2: “I need to do what’s best for my family.”

(If you haven't read Part 1 of our Judicial Branch campaign series, start here.)

The fight for paid family leave within the Judicial Branch includes lots of women who have already had children – and many of whom have grown kids or even grandchildren. 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 struggled to find childcare for their son before securing a coveted spot at a local daycare center. If they don’t use that spot, they lose it – meaning that they will have to pay for their son to attend daycare even while Jessica is home caring for the new baby. 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 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.”

Photo courtesy of Claire Anderson (@ClaireAndy)