During the 2013 legislative session, the Minnesota Legislature considered and passed a number of bills affecting Minnesota employers.

As we detailed in previous Alerts, the legislature passed bills legalizing same-sex marriage and limiting employers' ability to ask about or inquire into job applicants' criminal history at the application stage, and the legislature considered, but did not pass, a bill that would ban noncompete agreements in most circumstances.

The legislature also significantly amended Minnesota's workers' compensation statutes and reduced employers' unemployment insurance tax rates (so long as the state's unemployment insurance trust fund exceeds certain amounts). Other 2013 legislative changes Minnesota employers should be aware of are discussed below.

Use of Sick Leave to Care for Family Members

Minn. Stat. § 181.9413 was amended to expand the use of employee sick leave. Currently, employees may use any sick leave provided by their employers to care for their sick or injured children (who are under age 18, or under 20 and attending secondary school). Under the amended statute, employees may use sick leave benefits for "absences due to an illness of or injury to the employee's child, … adult child, spouse, sibling, parent, grandparent, or stepparent, for reasonable periods of time as the employee's attendance may be necessary, on the same terms upon which the employee is able to use sick leave benefits for the employee's own illness or injury."

Employers may limit employees' use of sick leave benefits for absences due to an "illness of or injury to the employee's adult child, spouse, sibling, parent, grandparent, or stepparent to no less than 160 hours in any 12-month period." Employers cannot impose such limits on employee's use of sick leave benefits due to the illness or injury of a child. The amended statute clarifies that "child" includes "a stepchild and a biological, adopted and foster child."

As under existing law, the statute applies to employers with 21 or more employees at at least one site, and applies only to sick leave benefits paid to employees from employers' general assets, and does not include short- or long-term disability benefits or other salary continuation benefits.

The amended statute goes into effect August 1, 2013, and applies to sick leave used on or after that date. Minnesota employers that provide paid sick leave to their employees should revise their policies by August 1 to ensure compliance.

Whistleblower Protection

The legislature materially amended the Minnesota Whistleblower Act at Minn. Stat. § 181.931 and Minn. Stat. § 181.932. The Minnesota Whistleblower Act prohibits employers from, among other things, discharging, disciplining, threatening or otherwise discriminating against or penalizing an employee because the employee made a good faith report of a violation or suspected violation of federal or state law to the employer, a governmental body or law enforcement official. The law adds new definitions of the terms "good faith," "penalize" and "report."

The term "good faith" is now defined as conduct that does not violate section 181.932, subdivision 3, meaning that statements or disclosures are made in good faith so long as they are not knowingly false or made in reckless disregard of the truth. The term "penalize" is defined as "conduct that might dissuade a reasonable employee from making or supporting a report, including post-termination conduct by an employer or conduct by an employer for the benefit of a third party." And the term "report" is defined as "a verbal, written, or electronic communication by an employee about an actual, suspected, or planned violation of a statute, regulation, or common law, whether committed by an employer or a third party." The law also expands protection to employees who report "planned" violations of federal or state law, including common law.

Under the amended statute, a broader range of employee reports may be considered in "good faith." Also, a broader range of employer conduct may be considered to "penalize" an employee, including post-termination conduct. The statute additionally protects reports of legal violations (or suspected violations) that have not yet occurred and reports of violations committed by persons other than the employer.

The law became effective May 25, 2013. These amendments further emphasize the importance of well-documented investigations of employee complaints, and training decision-makers on permitted and unpermitted factors when making employment decisions.

Wage Payment Penalties

Minn. Stat. § 181.13 and Minn. Stat. § 181.14 have been amended to include a definition of wages "actually earned and unpaid." Section 181.13, which addresses penalties for failure to pay wages promptly, and section 181.14, which governs payment of final wages, both now provide, "[w]ages are actually earned and unpaid if the employee was not paid for all time worked at the employee's regular rate of pay or at the rate required by law, including any applicable statute, regulation, rule, ordinance, government resolution or policy, contract, or other legal authority, whichever rate of pay is greater." The law clarifies that, if an employee's earned wages and commissions are not promptly paid, the employee may collect wages and commissions actually earned and unpaid, in addition to the statutory penalty. The amended statutes provide that employees' demands for payment of wages must be in writing, but need not state the precise amount of unpaid wages or commissions.

Section 181.14 was also amended to change the subdivision regarding deductions from final wages of employees entrusted with money or property. Under the amended statute, "[n]o employer shall make any deduction, directly or indirectly, from the wages due or earned by any employee, who is not an independent contractor, for lost or stolen property, damage to property, or to recover any other claimed indebtedness running from employee to employer, except as permitted by section 181.79." This law became effective April 30, 2013.

Service Animals

Minn. Stat. § 363A.19 provides that it is an unfair discriminatory practice for an owner or operator of a public place to prohibit a person with a disability from taking a service animal into the public place. The statute previously limited protection to service animals that could "be properly identified as being from a recognized program which trains service animals." The new law states only that the animal cannot be barred "if the service animal is properly harnessed or leashed so that the blind or deaf person or person with the physical or sensory disability may maintain control of the service animal." This law is effective August 1, 2013.

Minimum Wage

Finally, the legislature considered, but did not pass, bills raising the state minimum wage. House File 92 and Senate File 3 were passed by the House and Senate, respectively, but did not emerge from the Conference Committee. The House version, in addition to raising the minimum wage, would have changed the state overtime threshold from 48 hours to 40 hours and would have increased the parental leave entitlement from six to 12 weeks. The Senate bill included a different minimum wage increase and did not increase the overtime trigger or change the parental leave parameters. These bills may be reconsidered in the 2014 legislative session.