N.D. Legislature unanimously supports better access to family leave time

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“We never know when things will change in our lives,” Gary Feist told members of the North Dakota Legislature’s House Government and Veterans Affairs Committee March 17. Feist, president of the North Dakota Public Employees Association, was testifying in support of a proposal that would increase the amount of accrued sick leave state employees could use to care for an ill family member. The NDPEA Delegate Assembly had passed a resolution in October 2010 establishing this policy change as a priority issue for the 2011 legislative session. State employees in North Dakota don’t have collective bargaining, so legislative advocacy is central to the union’s representation.

The mid-March House hearing marked Feist’s second appearance before state lawmakers on the issue. On Jan. 28, he testified before the Senate Government and Veterans Affairs Committee.

Troy Thinnes with daughter, Mia. Photo by Amy Taborsky.  At both hearings, NDPEA member Troy Thinnes testified alongside Feist. Thinnes’ youngest daughter, Mia, developed a cancerous brain tumor in July 2010. “Mia will be in need of medical care for the next five years before she can be considered cancer-free,” Thinnes told lawmakers. “She will require numerous MRIs as they monitor the area at the base of her brain where the tumor once was. She also needs to do six more chemotherapy treatments, which conclude in September 2011.”

Thinnes told lawmakers it was frustrating that he could not access more of the sick leave he had accrued during his 18-year career with state government. In 2010, he exhausted the 40 hours of sick leave that was available for family medical leave, as well as all of his vacation.

At the January hearing, Feist dutifully represented the interests of his members. The bill, he said, “would help the state to set an example by being a family-friendly employer.” It “does not increase the amount of leave earned by the employee—it merely adds flexibility to a pre-existing benefit.” By the March 17 hearing, however, things had changed in Feist’s life—and so did his testimony.

Gary Feist with his daughter, Brianna. Photo by Amy Taborsky.   “On March 1, while I was out of state on business, my 3 ½-year-old daughter became very ill with Guillain-Barre syndrome, which is a disorder in which the body’s immune system attacks part of the peripheral nervous system,” Feist told lawmakers. “I returned to Bismarck to see my daughter on a vent and paralyzed from her chest down to her toes. Shortly after arriving at the hospital, I was told she needed to be airlifted to Minneapolis where she could receive the treatment she needed.”

At the time of the mid-March hearing, Feist had exhausted his family sick leave and was using annual leave. “I find it disheartening to know that while I have earned and saved more than 1,400 hours of sick leave, I cannot use it to take care of my family when they need me,” he told lawmakers, noting that his daughter, Brianna, is “on her way to recovery.”

In late April, Gov. Jack Dalrymple signed S.B. 2213, the bill to increase the amount of sick leave state employees can use to care for an ill family member from 40 hours annually to 80 hours annually. The measure not only passed both legislative chambers unanimously, it was amended to allow employees to take up to an additional 10 percent of their accrued sick leave in any 12-month period to care for a child, spouse or parent with a serious health condition.

“It’s a good thing for all of us,” says Thinnes, who exhausted his 40-hour limit in early April.