Pima County doubles paid parental leave to 12 weeks for gov't staffers
Pima County government staffers will have up to 12 weeks of fully paid parental leave after a 4-1 vote by the Board of Supervisors on Tuesday, bringing the total estimated cost of the benefit for the county to as much as $1.2 million annually. The move comes less than a month after they approved 100 percent pay during parental leave.
The county started “beefing up” its parental leave benefit to compete with other regional employers, including the UA, which also offers 12 weeks of fully paid parental leave, and the city of Tucson, which offers the benefit with six weeks of full pay.
Supervisor Adelita Grijalva from District 5 — covering the Southwest Side and much of Midtown Tucson — asked that the county double the length of time approved when the supervisors voted in late December to increase salaries during leave from 67 percent to 100 percent of regular pay. She said the county can’t compete with the private sector in salary, so they should offer more with their benefits and at least be able to compete with the UA and the city of Tucson.
“I do think that the board is going to have to look at all of (the county’s) benefits packages,” she said at the Tuesday meeting. “We’re looking at staff shortages all over Pima County, and in order for us to be competitive, it’s important for us to look at what it is that other companies are offering and what we can offer differently and better.”
The increase to 100 percent salary during parental leave was approved with an annual cost of $250,000, and the extension of available leave is projected to cost $900,000 annually. Both projections were made based on “the historical use of this kind of leave,” county officials said.
Opposition to the estimated $1.2 million price tag to expand the benefit was the reason for the one vote against the policy change by Supervisor Steve Christy, from District 4 in Eastern Pima County.
Christy, the lone Republican on the board, also voted against the initial expansion of the benefit for the high cost, but at the Tuesday meeting, he related the issue to the 56 county staffers who lost their jobs for failing to comply with a vaccine mandate.
“I find it very troubling that this board will make some sort of a benefit to our county employees of this magnitude at this cost yet in the same breath find it OK to terminate experienced Pima County employees merely because they’re not vaccinated during a holiday,” he said. “I don’t see why we can make such a strict and draconian requirement of our employees in one breath then turn around…and provide this benefit at the cost of taxpayers.
Pima County has a $2.1 billion budget and the quarter-million cost of increasing to 100 percent salary for parental leave was considered small by Supervisor Rex Scott from District 1, which includes Marana, Oro Valley and the Catalina Foothills.
“(It’s) a very small cost compared to what it would mean to our employees who are trying to take as much time as they can to deal with the magnitude of bringing a new child into the world,” Scott said in December.
Supervisor Matt Heinz from District 2 in South Tucson and most of Sahuarita also voiced his support during the Tuesday meeting, saying “We have to be an employer of choice.”
“It is a competitive job market, more now than it has been for quite a while,” Heinz said. “This is essential for us to offer these kinds of benefits to retain talented staff and recruit additional talent to the county.”
Supervisor Sharon Bronson, chair of the county board, also voted in favor of increasing the benefit for county government workers.
Parental leave has become more common over the past two decades, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Prior to 2017 less than 17 percent of state and local government employees in the U.S. had access to paid parental leave. As of 2021, that number had increased 26 percent of state and local government employees.
The civilian workforce nationwide, which is anyone 16 or older not in the military or incarcerated, has had increasing access to parental leave since 2008, when the BLS started keeping data for the group.
In 2008, paid parental leave was available to 9 percent of the total U.S. workforce, but by 2021 that rate increased to 23 percent. As of Dec. 2021, the total labor force stood at 162 million workers, and the unemployment rate lowered for a second consecutive month to 3.7 percent, a decrease from almost 7 percent in Dec. 2020.
The Federal and Medical Leave Act, a 1993 law, requires at least 12 weeks of unpaid parental leave each year for all public employees and companies with 50 or more employees and requires that employee can return to their jobs or be offered a similar job when they return.
County employees can take paid parental leave within the first 12 weeks after the birth or adoption of a child and extend it by six weeks by applying for earned sick leave, compensatory time or annual leave. Leave is job-protected, meaning another employee can’t be appointed to fill their position, not even temporarily, while they’re gone. Employees who fail to return within 90 days after the end of their leave have to reimburse the county what they were paid during their leave unless they or their child were suffering a serious health condition.
Pima County employees have access to other types of special leaves with pay including bereavement, administrative, grievance/appeal activity and special program leave. County employees can also take a paid holiday on the fourth Monday in March or the Friday following that Monday to celebrate César Chavez Remembrance Day.
Bennito L. Kelty is TucsonSentinel.com’s IDEA reporter, focusing on Inclusion, Diversity, Equity and Access stories, and a Report for America corps member supported by readers like you.