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The State of Paid Parental Leave in the Public Sector

Few state or local government employees have the benefit, but that's slowly changing -- and so are the circumstances for getting it.

San Francisco Supervisor Scott Wiener, left, before a rally supporting paid family leave at City Hall.
(AP/Jeff Chiu)
Several weeks ago, when Gov. Asa Hutchinson signed a paid maternity leave bill for state employees, Arkansas Personnel Administrator Kay Barnhill couldn’t help thinking back to her own experience. When her children were born, she had to use up all of her sick and vacation hours to spend time with them. Paid maternity leave, she says somewhat wistfully, “would have been tremendous.”

Only 13 percent of private-sector workers have access to paid parental leave, and that number isn’t likely much higher for state and local government employees.

The United States is one of the only industrialized nations that doesn't offer paid parental leave on a national level. The 1993 Family and Medical Leave Act guaranteed job protection for workers to take time off but made no requirements for payment during that period. 

Some states, like Arkansas, only apply the benefit to mothers, but fathers are increasingly being included too. There’s also been a slow but steady movement toward providing compensation for employees who are caring for children they recently adopted or fostered.

At the state level, 10 states -- including Arkansas -- "have some form of paid family leave protections for state employees," says Sadie Kliner, the deputy communications director at the National Partnership for Women & Families.

Four of those states' paid parental leave policies can benefit public and private workers. In New Jersey, almost all public- and private-sector employees are automatically covered under its 2008 law. But California's law, adopted in 2002, only applies to public employee unions and the cities and counties that opt in. The same is true in Rhode Island, which enacted its policy in 2013, and New York, where the benefit will become available in 2018. The National Partnership for Women & Families published a chart this month that details the differences in these policies from state to state.

In some of the other states, individual government offices have instituted their own policies. 

In Massachusetts, for example, staff in the offices of the attorney general and in the state treasurer have had paid parental leave since 2015. The 12-week benefit extends to both mothers and fathers with new babies or adopted or foster children.

The policy is growing even more prevalent for municipal workers. Austin, Texas; Boston; Hennepin County, Minn.; King County, Wash.; Minneapolis and Washington, D.C.; have all started to offer paid parental leave in the past several years. And within days of the Arkansas law's passage, Seattle expanded its paid parental leave from four to 12 weeks for public workers.

Why the increasing interest in paid leave? For most employers, it's because the benefit offers them a clear competitive advantage.

“There’s high competition in the financial services area,” says Massachusetts Treasurer Deborah Goldberg. “If you want to hire millennials, there’s an expectation of a work-life balance.” 

That's a sentiment that Arkansas' Barnhill echoes.

“We want to use it to bring younger employees into state government," she says. "In today’s marketplace, many single mothers don’t have the income to support themselves during that time off.”

In San Francisco, the proof of their argument is in the numbers. According to Micki Callahan, the city's human resources director, women represent only 10 percent of Twitter employees and 15 percent of Facebook employees in nearby Silicon Valley. But in San Francisco, which offers paid parental leave for public workers, women hold 28 percent of the city's tech jobs. 

Caroline Cournoyer is GOVERNING's senior web editor.
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