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Why We Need Parental Leave for the Public Workforce

Government needs to compete with the private sector for the best workers. And it's simply the right thing to do.

When it comes to offering paid leave time for new parents, the United States lags behind nearly every other industrialized nation: A meager 12 percent of U.S. private-sector workers get paid parental leave, according to the Department of Labor. But change is coming. Companies of all sizes in the tech, manufacturing, media, finance and retail sectors are starting to offer generous paid leave plans.

Much the same is happening in the public sector. In January, Defense Secretary Ash Carter announced that all branches of the U.S. military will begin granting 12 weeks of paid maternity leave and nearly three weeks of paternity leave to service members. Just this week President Obama again urged Congress to provide paid parental leave for the rest of the federal workforce, and Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton proposed doing the same for his state's employees. Cities including Seattle, San Francisco, Chicago, Pittsburgh, Minneapolis, New York and Portland, Ore., now grant their public employees at least several weeks of paid leave after the birth of a child.

That list needs to be a longer one if we are going to attract talented people to public service and retain them in our municipal workforces. The next city I'd like to see on that list is Los Angeles, where I chair the City Council's Budget and Finance Committee.

Los Angeles doesn't provide its nearly 40,000 employees with any paid parental leave. City workers are allowed to take up to four months off after the birth of a child, but whether the time is paid or not is depends on how much vacation and sick time the employee has accrued. This may seem somewhat generous, but it is not the same as providing paid parental leave. If an employee has no vacation or sick days available, none of the time is paid. As anyone who has ever cared for a newborn child knows, parental leave is not a vacation.

Last fall, I partnered with a council colleague, Nury Martinez, to raise this issue in Los Angeles. We introduced a motion to the City Council that explores offering city employees four weeks of paid parental leave. It also asks city staff to report on how much leave city employees take off during pregnancy and after the birth of a child, and how much it costs the city when parents leave the city workforce after having a child. When the Pentagon studied Secretary Carter's proposal, it determined that women were leaving the military after a decade at a rate 30 percent higher than that of men. We might very well find a similar trend in Los Angeles.

Time and again, we've seen city employees use up all of their vacation time and sick time in order to have bonding opportunities with the newest additions to their families. It has happened to people on my own staff. When the Budget and Finance Committee met to discuss the option of paid parental leave, we heard testimony from some of the people who provide the city services we depend on -- including city librarians, 911 operators, office clerks and recreation-center workers -- about their personal challenges under L.A.'s current leave policy. They said that adopting paid parental leave for the city's workforce would be a way to be more supportive to working parents during a challenging, wonderful and life-changing time -- a time when parents most need the support.

There are other compelling and practical arguments to support such a move. A significant portion of L.A.'s city workforce is nearing retirement age, and the city needs to be able to compete with private-industry perks and salaries to attract the best people. Los Angeles also would set a positive example for other public- and private-sector employers who may be considering granting paid parental leave. As a parent who understands the value of taking time off to bond with children, I also think that offering paid parental leave is simply the right thing for an employer to do.

Our motion soon will go to the full City Council and, if approved, staff reports will come back in several months, after which we will move forward based on the data we receive. I am hopeful that this effort will lead Los Angeles to join the ranks of other U.S. cities and the military by offering competitive, family-friendly benefits for our workers. It is time for L.A., and the United States as a whole, to catch up with the rest of the world.

A member of the Los Angeles City Council and former California State Assembly member
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