Politics & Government

Gov. Cooper orders paid parental leave for thousands of state employees

Cooper orders 8 weeks of paid parental leave for NC employees

Gov. Roy Cooper on Thursday, May 23, 2019 signed an executive order permitting state government employees to take up to eight weeks off after having or adopting a child.
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Gov. Roy Cooper on Thursday, May 23, 2019 signed an executive order permitting state government employees to take up to eight weeks off after having or adopting a child.

Many state employees will soon get paid time off when they have a child, Gov. Roy Cooper announced Thursday.

Cooper signed an executive order granting paid parental leave to the estimated 56,000 state employees who work in the agencies reporting to the governor. Full-time workers who give birth would get up to eight weeks of paid time off under the Democratic governor’s order, which takes effect Sept. 1. Spouses would get four weeks off.

Currently, those state employees must use their sick-leave or accrued vacation time if they want to take time off after having a baby. Once the new policy kicks in, they won’t have to dip in to their other kinds of leave.

“Parenting is often more than a full-time job. It takes some time to learn the balancing act, and every family could use more support,” Cooper said in a news conference. The new policy “will help reduce gender inequality in our workplaces, and it will help our state attract and retain a strong workforce,” he added.

The United States is one of the last developed countries in the world that hasn’t mandated paid parental leave across the board, according to the Pew Research Center. Only about a half-dozen states require paid family leave, but at least 10 grant it to state employees, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Parental leave expansion was one of the promises Cooper made on the campaign trail when he ran against former Republican Gov. Pat McCrory. At the time, Cooper was calling for an expansion of unpaid rather than paid parental leave, and didn’t specify state employees.

Democrats in the state House introduced a bill in April that aimed to allow up to eight weeks of paid parental leave for full-time state employees and up to four weeks for part-time employees. But that bill has gone nowhere.

Cost to the state

The new policy will cost the state an estimated $3.5 million a year, Cooper said Thursday. He said the affected departments, which include the Department of Health and Human Services and the the Department of Public Safety, will be able to absorb their share of the costs.

Neither the N.C. Republican Party nor GOP legislative leaders issued a response to Cooper’s announcement. The News & Observer emailed several Republican leaders in the state House and state Senate, but received no comment.

Mothers, some of whom were holding babies, stood around Cooper in the Governor’s Mansion on Thursday as he signed the executive order. One of them was Danielle Lockley, who gave birth in January to her son, Aiden.

Lockley works for NC FAST, a state program that works to improve the operational efficiency of health and social service departments in counties across the state. When Aiden was born, Lockley said she needed to se almost all her vacation and sick leave to recover.

Returning to work after eight weeks was tough, she said. “He still wasn’t sleeping throughout the night,” Lockley said as she held Aiden.

So she dreaded the idea of returning to work even sooner

“At about six weeks, he was still waking up every hour or two hours,” she said with a laugh. “That wouldn’t have worked if I had to go back to work. I would have been falling asleep at the computer.”

Adding paid parental leave is part of the Cooper administration’s Early Childhood Action Plan, according to Mandy Cohen, the NC DHHS secretary.

Parents shouldn’t have to choose between losing part of a paycheck and taking their child to the doctor, Cohen said. She believes the new policy will not only improve the quality of life for state employees, but also make their children healthier.

“Recent national and international studies have shown that increasing access to paid parental leave can reduce rates of infant mortality and low birth weight,” Cohen said. “And infant mortality is something that is way too high here in North Carolina.”

Kim Swanson, whose family was not covered by the Family and Medical Leave Act, returned to work after only five weeks with her newborn daughter, Marley.



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Paul “Andy” Specht reports on North Carolina leaders and state politics for The News & Observer and PolitiFact. Specht previously covered Raleigh City Hall and town governments around the Triangle. He’s a Raleigh native who graduated from Campbell University in Buies Creek, N.C. Contact him at aspecht@newsobserver.com or (919) 829-4870.
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