Minnesota, workers want AT&T to comply with state paid leave law

MINNEAPOLIS (PAI and Workday Minnesota) – Paid family and sick leave may be the law now for many companies in Minnesota, but that doesn’t necessarily mean the state’s businesses – which fought it – are going to obey it.

And such corporate defiance, by AT&T, led members of the Communications Workers and their families to rally outside the U.S. Courthouse in Minneapolis on July 17. They then packed a courtroom where the state of Minnesota and the company faced off over the enforcement of paid sick leave legislation.

Senior employees of AT&T are being denied paid sick leave that is guaranteed under their union contract and protected by state law, the workers said. In May, some 200 workers walked off the job at AT&T’s downtown Minneapolis office to protest the company’s actions.

In June, Minnesota Department of Labor and Industry Commissioner Ken Peterson wrote AT&T Human Resources Manager Barb Meyer, directing the company to comply with Minnesota statutes on paid sick leave. When it didn’t, attorney Jonathan Moler argued the state’s case before U.S. District Judge Michael Davis.

The state does not require employers to provide paid sick leave, but if they do, they must comply with state law that says the leave can be used to care for children and other family members, Moler said. The law also says the amount of leave used for this purpose cannot be less than 160 hours in any 12-month period.

“AT&T wants to provide paid sick leave that falls below Minnesota’s minimum standard,” Moler said.

Company attorney Noah Lipschultz retorted that the state department’s action is pre-empted by federal law and that the sick leave issue should be settled through the collective bargaining process. Federal law now has unpaid sick and family leave. Efforts to enact paid leave are marooned in the Republican-run 114th Congress.

“The issue is ‘Who gets to decide?’ Lipschultz told Davis. “Who gets to interpret the contract?”

CWA members said AT&T’s policy affects their ability to care for loved ones.

Debra Derke, a 30-year employee, was joined by her husband and three daughters as she addressed a rally before the court proceeding. “This is the reason we are here today,” she said, motioning toward her husband, Kyle, who now uses a wheelchair after suffering a stroke, heart attack and other health problems. Derke said she and daughters Paige, Nicole and Megan are juggling his care and need her to be able to use her paid sick leave.

Don Waalen-Radzevicius, a 29-year employee, said he was denied paid sick leave to help care for his husband when he was hospitalized.

“There’s no reason that a company that has as much money as AT&T does, who continues to make as much money as AT&T does, continues to stomp on us, who make that money for them,” he said. “It’s a simple request. Follow the law.”

The CWA has filed several grievances on behalf of affected employees. At the same time, the union hopes the court will uphold the state’s ability to take action in such cases.

Following the oral arguments, Davis said, “We’ll sort through the issues and have a ruling out as quickly as possible” on whether the case can move forward.

Barb Kucera, Editor, Workday Minnesota

Photo: CWA members rallied outside the U.S. Courthouse where the State of Minnesota and AT&T faced off over enforcement of paid sick leave laws. Workday Minnesota.




Barb Kucera
Barb Kucera

Barb Kucera was editor of Workday Minnesota. She served for 6 years as director of the Labor Education Service, which publishes Workday. Kucera has degrees in journalism and industrial relations and a background in communications, including as editor of The Union Advocate. She is an associate member of the Minnesota Newspaper and Communications Guild/CWA Local 37002.