Non-unionized Palm Beach County employees could soon get paid parental leave as they welcome the birth, adoption or foster care placement of a child.
With a push from County Commissioner Melissa McKinlay, the county is working on a change in policy that would grant such employees a six-week leave at full pay.
Such a policy would put the county in line with Miami-Dade County and other municipalities in Florida — West Palm Beach, Wellington, Miami Beach, Doral, St. Petersburg, Tampa — that already offer employees paid parental leave.
Large cities like Atlanta, Boston, Minneapolis, Austin, Texas, Washington, D.C., San Francisco and Seattle offer employees paid parental leave, as do the states of New Jersey, California and Rhode Island, according to a review conducted by Palm Beach County staff.
County employees can already take vacation, sick leave and leave without pay through the Family Medical Leave Act to welcome family additions, but the county’s new policy would create a different, paid benefit. Men and women would be eligible for the benefit.
Though there are concerns about how broad the policy should be, there appears to be strong support among commissioners for the enactment of paid parental leave. On Tuesday, commissioners directed county staff to draft a rule for their consideration that would apply to the county’s 2,636 non-unionized employees.
The county’s 3,009 unionized employees would not be covered under the new policy because their pay and benefits are determined by the contracts their unions negotiate with the county. Some of those employees are already eligible for varying level of paid parental leave.
McKinlay, a divorced mother of three, has frequently noted the challenges women and families face in working and raising children.
In urging her colleagues to support the establishment of a paid parental leave policy on Tuesday, she told them about the difficulties she faced as a 26-year old Sarasota County employee starting a family.
“I did not have the beau-coup, built-up sick hours that some long-term employees had,” McKinlay said.
The issue of leave was an immediate and lasting concern, she said.
“I loved my job at the county,” she said. “I only made about $26,000 a year when I first started. I took 12 weeks of unpaid leave. I had about enough sick leave accrued for about three weeks.”
McKinlay said her family’s finances were further strained by having to pay extra to make sure she kept her health insurance while she was away from work.
The pregnancy wasn’t a smooth one.
“I had a high-risk pregnancy, which meant I had more doctor visits than a normal pregnancy would have to go through,” she told her colleagues. “I had to take sick leave for every doctor appointment, prenatal visit.”
That she burned through so much sick leave during her pregnancy meant she had less time at home with the baby before she had to return to work and the baby was placed in daycare.
“When you put a 12-week old in daycare, they are sick all the time,” McKinlay said. “There were so many days when I was faced with, ‘If I don’t show up, I’m going to lose my job.’ I don’t have any sick leave. I don’t have any vacation time because I exhausted it all to try to be home with him for a couple weeks. There were days, I admit it, that I probably gave him Advil to hide a fever or prayed that he wouldn’t throw up once I dropped him off at daycare after picking up a stomach bug. That’s not a decision that an employee should have to make.”
A staff preview of a six-week paid parental leave program indicated it would cost about $195,450 per year, assuming 25 births, adoptions and foster child placements.
Assistant County Administrator Nancy Bolton noted that the county’s workforce has still not reached pre-Great Recession levels.
“The county is working, still, with a pretty large deficit of several hundred employees less than we had before the recession,” Bolton said. “And so every employee’s extended leave is noted.”
Bolton also said paid parental leave could be a good recruiting tool, one that would help the county attract and retain women and younger employees. The average age of a non-union county employee is just under 47, Bolton said.
Paid parental leave has some merits, Commissioner Steven Abrams said, but he urged his colleagues to consider parameters.
“A father’s experience is not as adventurous as a mom’s, that’s for sure,” Abrams said. “And yet this would extend to fathers basically staying home watching their newborn sleep, taking naps and changing diapers.”
Abrams also questioned whether the policy should be limited to the parents of newborns and not extended to the parents of school-age foster or adopted children.
“They are in school all day,” Abrams said. “Are we really going to subsidize parents of older children — newly adopted, foster care — to be at home for those kids?”
With more limits, Abrams said he could back a paid parental leave program.
“I would hope we wouldn’t extend it as we do with so many other things to all of our contractors and vendors,” he said. “Keep it limited, and I think it does have some merit to consider.”
When Commissioner Mack Bernard spoke in favor of paid parental leave, he gently chided Abrams.
“I agree that we should proceed,” said Bernard, the father of three young girls. “I believe it should be applied to both mothers and fathers.”
Turning toward Abrams, Bernard smiled and said: “I know, for me, I have three girls. I wasn’t sitting home. I was going to the doctor’s appointments. I believe that it’s important.”
Current parental leave in Palm Beach County
- Non-unionized (2,636 employees): Sick/vacation time; unpaid time through U.S. Family Medical Leave Act.
- Communication Workers of America (1,232 employees): Sick/vacation time; unpaid time through FMLA; birth mother can use long-term disability with 65 to 85 percent pay.
- International Association of Firefighters (1,364 employees): Maternity/paternity leave of up to three months with 65 percent to 100 percent pay.
- Palm Tran Amalgamated Transit Union (413 employees): Maternity/paternity leave of up to three months; sick leave must be used first.