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Pima County approves 100% pay for gov't employees on parental leave

Pima County employees can now take up to six weeks of parental leave with full pay after the Board of Supervisors voted 4-1 to change the benefit, following a pattern that has become more common nationwide over the past 20 years.

The increase in paid leave, from 67 percent of regular pay to 100 percent, comes after a 4-1 vote by the supervisors on Tuesday. The move is meant to start “beefing up (county) benefits” to compete with local employers like the University of Arizona and the city of Tucson, both of which already offer six weeks of full pay for new parents.

The single “no” vote came from Supervisor Steve Christy, the only Republican on the board, who said during the meeting that he opposed it because of the $250,000 estimated yearly cost. That forecast is based on the 723 employees who took advantage of the previous policy over the five years that it was in place.

It’s a small price to pay, said Supervisor Rex Scott, considering the scope of the county’s $2.1 billion budget and how beneficial it would be to county staffers.

“It would certainly be an incredible benefit to our employees,” Scott said during the meeting. “This would put us on a par with the city of Tucson, which is an entity with which we compete for employees… I don’t think $250,000 a year is a massive cost given the size of our budget, but it’s a significant benefit to our employees.”

Scott said it would be “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.”

Supervisor Adelita Grijalva said it will help the county compete as a local employer. She also wanted the county to extend their paid parental leave to 12 weeks, which is offered by large federal employers like Customs and Border Protection and, more recently, the U.S. military after the passage of the current National Defense Authorization Act.

“We can’t necessarily compete with the private sector in salary,” Grijalva said. “So beefing up our benefits makes sense.”

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Scott also said he supports the 12 weeks of paid parental leave, but first wants to give county administration time to study how much it would cost the county.

Since 2017, more than a quarter of state and local government employees in the U.S. have had access to paid parental leave, and less than 17 percent of them did before 2017, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. The BLS reports that 26 percent of state and local government workers had access to paid parental leave in 2021.

The civilian workforce nationwide, which is anyone 16 or older not in the military or incarcerated, have had increasing access to parental leave since 2008, which is when the BLS added the category to their parental leave data. Paid parental leave was available to 9 percent of the total U.S. workforce, a number that includes the unemployed, in 2008, but that rate increased to 23 percent in 2021. As of Nov. 2021, the total labor force stood at 162 million workers, and the unemployment rate was 4 percent, a decrease from more than 6 percent last November.

It’s not as common for private industry workers to have access to paid parental leave as it is for state and local government employees, but since 2005, their rates of access to the benefit have come closer to equal. In 2005, only 7 percent of private industry workers had paid parental leave, but in 2021, 23 percent did.

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 the leave be job-protected, or made so that the employee can return to their job or be offered a similar job when they return.

Responding to Grijalva’s idea to extend the six-week paid parental leave to 12 paid weeks, Christy said “I’m wondering why we’re doing this at all.”

“The current plan has been in effect for five years. Have there been problems with that?” Christy said. “Certainly to have to come up with a quarter of a million dollars annually to pay people not to work, I think that requires some good explanation and information, more than saying this is being competitive in the workplace.”

While Christy said his concerns were the cost to county taxpayers, Scott also pointed out Congress also wanted to improve parental leave policies nationally and that the U.S. has less enticing parental leave benefits than countries with similar economies.

County employees can take paid parental leave within the first 12 weeks after the birth or adoption of a child and extend it after six weeks by applying for earned sick leave, compensatory time or annual leave. 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 the six weeks 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.

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Bennito L. Kelty is TucsonSentinel.com’s IDEA reporter, focusing on Inclusion, Diversity, Equity and Access stories, and a Report for America corps member.

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