Family leave in rural Minnesota needs improvement, per UMN report

The Humphrey School report found childcare, elderly care and disability resources difficult to access in rural Minnesota.

Dylan Miettinen

Nate Erickson, a resident of Willmar, Minnesota, worked four jobs for more than 80 hours per week to support his pregnant wife ahead of her November 2018 due date. 

Due to financial constraints, Erickson was unable to accept the three-month unpaid leave his company offered.

“By the time the baby was on its way, I had four days of vacation set aside for my child’s birth,” Erickson said.

According to a report released by the University of Minnesota’s Humphrey School of Public Affairs in late January, Erickson is not alone. Debra Fitzpatrick, the Humphrey School community engagement director and author of the report, said there is a greater need for paid family and medical leave in rural Minnesota. This includes better access to health resources focused on the elderly, disabled people and children. 

“In the metro area, people usually have healthcare close by. In rural communities, oftentimes they have to travel greater distances, which has implications both for them and their caregivers,” Fitzpatrick said.

“Even when money isn’t an issue for people in rural communities, simply accessing adequate healthcare can be,” said Nancy Jost, the early childhood coordinator for the West Central Initiative, an organization that serves nine counties in rural Minnesota.

“Some people may have to drive an hour or two, sometimes even three, to get to a dentist. We have less of those services available to us, and we have to drive further to get to them,” Jost said.

Forming nurturing bonds with their parents in early stages of development is extremely important for infants, Jost said. But according to a study cited in the report, women in rural settings are 24 percent less likely to have access to paid maternity leave than urban women. 

“Our brains develop from relationships and attachment. When parents have to go back to work days or weeks after having this baby, it’s harder to build those relationships and that attachment,” Jost said. “In the United States, we often talk about how important children are. But we don’t always practice what we preach. If we do believe children are so very important, then we should support these parents to getting them off to a great start.”

The Humphrey School report found that there is a “critical shortage” of childcare, especially infant care, in rural Minnesota.

When Erickson and his wife started looking for their son’s daycare in October 2018, a month before he was due, the options were limited. He said his wife once called 12 child care providers in one day to inquire about openings for their son. Some of the soonest openings were in 2020. 

“My dad was an incredible person, but he passed away two years ago from complications related to addiction. Though my dad was great, I made a promise to myself that I would always be there in mind, body and spirit for my child. I also made a promise to myself that I would be there for all of the big moments in my child’s life,”  Erickson said. “The idea that I have already missed out on those firsts is really hard.”

One proposed solution, Fitzpatrick said, is a social insurance program in which small payroll contributions from employees are pooled together in a state fund to pay for medical and family leave. The model has already been adopted in six states and would alleviate the financial burden on smaller rural companies that otherwise have to pay out of pocket. 

Erickson said a program like this would have alleviated a burden on his family. 

“After meeting my son and seeing how incredible it is to bring life into the world, the idea of not being able to be a part of that life is just soul-crushing,” he said. “I want to be there for all of those firsts, but the way it is right now, I’m unable to be.”