On Tuesday, Morrisville became the latest Triangle town to offer paid leave for new parents, a growing trend as advocates push for the change across the country and municipalities compete for strong job candidates.
Under the new policy, Morrisville employees of any gender who become parents will receive full pay for a total of six weeks, which can be taken all at once or non-consecutively during a 12-month period. The policy applies to employees who have a biological child, adopt or foster a child or become a child’s guardian.
The issue of paid parental leave has sparked debate among elected leaders about whether taxpayers’ money should be used to fund government employees’ time off when they become parents. In Morrisville, Mayor Mark Stohlman and Councilman Michael Schlink had expressed concerns about how the policy might lead to employees being overburdened when they cover for colleagues who are out of work for a month and a half.
“I think it’s easier to give someone more than to have to take something back,” Stohlman said at a town council meeting April 11, referring to the possibility of offering a shorter paid time-off period. “To me, this is a very generous benefit, and very well-deserved, but if it comes at a cost to co-workers who leave because they’re stressed out, that defeats some of what we’re driving for.”
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Durham County leaders approved a paid parental leave policy last fall. Since then, Wake County, Cary and Rolesville have approved policies, and Chatham County, Durham and Chapel Hill are considering similar measures.
In February, the Apex Town Council entertained but ultimately rejected a proposal.
The issue became a hot topic among local elected leaders as the presidential campaign was underway. Paid family leave was among the few ideas Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton both pledged to address.
Often, it’s about attracting quality employees.
“One driver is that local governments compete with each other for the best workers,” UNC School of Government professor Leisha DeHart-Davis said in an email. “And parental leave is one way to up the ante, to convey that the local government is with the times.”
A similar wave has recently swept over the Triangle’s private sector, and town staffs have noted that municipal and county governments often compete with those companies for employees.
Most of these new policies are based on the Family Medical Leave Act, a federal law known as the FMLA that gives full-time employees 12 weeks of unpaid time off when a child is born or an employee otherwise assumes guardianship of a child.
With the exception of Durham County, which offers paid leave for all 12 weeks, new local policies offer six weeks of paid leave for employees eligible for the time off FMLA guarantees.
Paid leave for new parents has its skeptics, said Beth Messersmith, the North Carolina chapter coordinator of women’s advocacy group MomsRising, which has advocated for paid leave policies around the area.
“Part of it is that it’s just a new concept for people who came up through the workforce without these benefits and think, ‘We didn’t have (paid parental leave), and we made it,’ ” Messersmith said. “Part of that is just a shift of thinking about how does the workforce operate.”
It’s tough to predict how much it will cost Morrisville and other towns and counties to offer paid time off for new parents.
No one knows how many employees might use the benefit in a given year. And there are few direct costs associated with paid leave. An employee’s salary is simply paid, as budgeted, rather than being withheld.
But there are indirect costs, mostly associated with losses in productivity. Extended absences are especially worrisome for first responder agencies, which need to have a set number of workers on duty at all times.
Some of the country’s largest cities have gone further, offering the benefit to all workers rather than just those directly employed by the city government. Last year, San Francisco became the first to do so. California had already paid new parents at 55 percent of a worker’s usual salary for six weeks; San Francisco’s measure required the city’s employers to pick up the remaining 45 percent.
The city’s Small Business Commission publicly denounced the policy, saying it ignored the burden it placed on its members.
In Cary, the human resources staff won over members of the Town Council who had initially opposed the policy by distancing the issue from social politics. They argued that the savings realized through employee retention and satisfaction would outweigh the policy’s costs.
DeHart-Davis, the UNC professor, said the business case for paid leave can be a compelling one. But that should be accompanied by a clear acknowledgment of the social purpose, she said.
“The question is not whether government organizations should offer paid parental leave – they should – but whether there is an organizational culture that supports employees taking it,” DeHart-Davis said. “There can be a stigma associated with taking family leave, suggesting that the employee is not dedicated or serious about their career. So it’s not enough to offer parental leave. Government organizations have to work hard to signal that it’s OK to do so.”
Gargan: 919-829-4807; @hgargan