Families First: A Comprehensive Approach

On Monday November 23, 2015 the City Council passed our budget and voted on two amendments pertaining to parental leave.  It was an emotional meeting.

I agree that the call for 12+ weeks of parental leave from the crowded Council chambers is a critical issue for families, but that proposal does not meet the needs of our entire workforce. We need to move toward a more robust program including a 16-week parental leave program that is the standard in other nations — and at the same time provide fair paid leave for all employees to care for our aging parents or family members with long term disabilities.

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We’re on our way to do just that. The City Council unanimously passed an addition to our budget yesterday to accelerate our workforce equity initiative that examines our leave policies, and calls for the creation of a Workforce Equity Strategic Action Plan by July 16, 2016.  This will provide an intentional, thoughtful evaluation of best practices and options for every employee.

We have a ways to go to create a fully equitable workplace; yet what the City designs through this strategic approach can be replicated by other cities and by local businesses large and small.

We know that the United States is the only industrialized country that does not guarantee paid maternity leave to new mothers.   On this front we have more in common with developing countries than we do with Canada and European nations.

In our country only 12% of workers have access to paid leave through their employer, and our Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) provides job-protected unpaid leave to individuals who work for companies with more than fifty employees.  That covers less than 60% of US workers.

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Those of us who work for the City of Seattle are fortunate.  Seattle employees may use their accumulated vacation and sick leave to care for a new baby.  In addition,   the City Council passed a pilot program last May that allows four weeks of paid parental leave for new or adopting parents (thanks to Councilmember Jean Godden’s leadership).

Our new four-week leave program is an important and popular program for families because it gives time for both mothers and fathers to bond with the child.   In the past 6 months since implementation, nearly 100 employees have benefitted from this, 2/3 of them fathers. I appreciate the leave time the City extends to its employees, but four weeks to bond is not nearly enough – we need to follow examples and best practices from other countries and businesses to provide families with parental benefits up to 16 weeks.

I am particularly sensitive to the need for a comprehensive program. When I was a young mother, I had no paid parental leave and no local family support.  I struggled to meet my responsibilities and had to get back to work as soon as possible.  In fact, when my son was born, I had a legal brief due the following Monday.  Paul was born on Wednesday and I was in the office completing that brief on Saturday.  It was a very difficult time.

Later in my life, I cared for my aging father.  He lived with my husband and me. Dad was healthy and beating me at golf at age 85, but by the time he was 91, I was taking care of every aspect of his life, from his taxes to his toenails. I was fortunate in that my accumulated sick leave allowed me to offer this care to Dad.

Many of our employees likewise need to care for an aging family member or deal with a long term disability for themselves or their partners.  As our workplace and workforce change, our benefits must adapt accordingly.

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The City’s Workforce Equity Strategic Plan will make recommendations beyond parental leave, considering the needs of our employees who may greatly benefit from other options.

To create these equitable options, we on the Council have asked our Seattle Department of Human Resources (SDHR) to expand its look at policies, programs and benefits that will increase opportunities for women, people of color and other underrepresented groups in our City.   The Director of SDHR has agreed to report back to the Council early in the year and will look at a menu of best policy practices and potential benefits such as:

  • More flexibility with part time work and job share
  • Subsidized child care on site
  • Breast feeding rooms for new moms
  • Expanded Parental Leave
  • Elder Care Leave
  • Telecommuting
  • Insurance pools to cover small and large organizations as well as city employees

Basic fairness to all employees should be our objective. As we all know and as Eileen Appelbaum from the Center of Economic Policy and Research confirmed in her article in The Hill, “leave benefits in the U.S. are very unequal, with managers, professionals and other highly paid workers far more likely than middle- or low-wage workers to have access to paid leave.”

As our Department of Human Services creates our action plan, we can invite a state-wide, broad conversation to improve family circumstances for every employee at every economic level.  The result can improve financial circumstances not only for workers but for large and small businesses in our city and across our state.

We can learn from others.  For example, Vodafone, an international telecommunications company with 100,000+ employees, received kudos last March when it introduced a minimum level of paid maternity leave for the full-time employees.   500 employees are in the U.S. The company created a new policy of not just twelve weeks but sixteen weeks of paid maternity leave and allowed new mothers six months of a 30-hour per week schedule for 40-hours of pay as a minimum benefit.

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Parental leave such as that offered by Vodafone has positive implications for businesses’ bottom lines.  Industry leaders recognize that a comprehensive leave policy has financial value to them and to their employees both. In a letter dated September 15, 2015, 203 academic leaders from 88 business schools and institutions explained to Congress that, “Sound business practices, data from other countries, our own research with employers, employees and organizations, and our experiences teaching the business leaders of tomorrow compel our conclusion that the United States must adopt a national paid family and medical leave policy.”

We must build on the experience of established and viable programs like Vodafone’s. For example, in October, the District Council for Washington DC voted to provide its part-time and full-time employees with up to sixteen weeks of paid family leave. The leave was designed to give employees time to bond with an infant or an adopted child, recover from an illness, recuperate from a military deployment or tend to an ill family member. The benefit is funded by a new tax on D.C. employers.

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Similarly, some states, including California, New Jersey and Rhode Island offer insurance pools for employers large and small.  This is an opt-in approach.

An insurance pool for paid leave is similar in structure to disability insurance. Interested employers would pay a determined amount per employee into the pool, and employees draw wages from the pool when they are eligible to take an extended leave. Contract workers, non-profits and people who are self-employed could opt-in to the program. This is an affordable option to support employees and employers of all sizes.

In Rhode Island, a social insurance fund called Temporary Caregiver Insurance makes income available to those needing leave, and provides back-up support for the businesses whose employees take time off.  Employees, not surprisingly used it responsibly and the fund is growing.

Seattle’s Human Resources Department (SHDR) will create an action plan and provide recommendations for the City’s next steps in the Workforce Equity Action Plan by July 1, 2016.

I am committed to working with our employees, labor unions, employers large and small to set new standards and extend up to 16 weeks of parental leave. I am also committed to extending paid family leave equitably.  Our hard working employees deserve this, and our city will benefit by having healthy families and loyal workers.

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