You can thank King County Council Member Rod Dembowski (seen here with city council member Jean Godden) for getting county employees 12 weeks of paid parental leave.
You can thank King County Council Member Rod Dembowski (seen here with city council member Jean Godden) for getting county employees 12 weeks of paid parental leave. King County

Remember earlier this year when the City of Seattle gave its employees four weeks of paid parental leave and King County responded with, "Good job, mayor, but wouldn't 12 weeks be better?"

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In February, the King County Council asked the county executive for legislation that would actually give county employees 12 weeks of paid parental leave. This week, it's actually happening. Meanwhile, the city council is showing no enthusiasm for expanding the city's four-week benefit to 12 weeks.

First, let's talk about the very big step the county is taking.

Yesterday, King County Executive Dow Constantine sent the council a bill that, if passed, would offer county employees of all genders who give birth, adopt, or become foster parents 12 weeks of paid leave. Their jobs would be protected and they would continue accruing vacation and sick time while they're gone.

County employees will have to have used all but one week of their sick time and one week of their vacation time in order to get the full 12 weeks of parental time. That isn't required under the city's policy and it's not great. But it makes the policy cheaper for the county, and 12 weeks is widely considered more effective than four weeks for getting all the benefits of parental leave. (As I've reported before, those are not just health-related, but also social and economic benefits.)

The county council is expected to pass the legislation within a month and it would likely take effect January 1, making almost all of the county's 14,000 employees eligible. The county expects about 240 employees to use the benefit each year at a cost of $2.9 million. (That money is coming from a variety of sources across the county and won't require any cuts, according to county council member Rod Dembowski.)

One of those 240 employees will be Brook Buettner, a 35-year-old social worker in the county's public defense department who is due to have her second child in May. When she had her first child, Buettner says she was able to stay home without paid parental leave because her husband works and they used savings accounts and credit cards. But not everyone has that luxury.

"I'm really privileged to be able to do that even without [paid parental leave]," Buettner says, "but I know a lot of moms have to return to work just few weeks after their baby is born because they're not able to stay home without being paid and that’s not good for anybody."

Dembowski, a Democrat who has been leading the push for this legislation, says "it’s been a real fight."

He won't name names but says some inside county government didn't want to undertake the costs of the program or wanted to delay it.

"I have pushed and prodded and fought," Dembowski says. "People will never know what it’s taken to bring it to life. It's exciting and personally rewarding."

Meanwhile, in Seattle, city council member Kshama Sawant has called for expanding the city's four-week policy, but she isn't getting much traction among her colleagues.

The city council is currently in the process of making changes to the mayor's 2016 budget. As part of that process, Sawant introduced a proposal to add $2.6 million to the budget to expand the city's parental leave from four weeks to 12, but it takes three council members to sign on to a budget change in order for it to be discussed and voted on. Sawant couldn't find enough support.

Among those who wouldn't sign on, according to Sawant's office, was Council Member Jean Godden. Godden has made gender pay equity her signature issue while on council and helped usher through the four week parental leave program. But she was also among those who said at the time that four weeks wasn't enough.

In what has become their default setting these days, Godden's office didn't return my request for comment about this. But it's not to hard to figure out what's going on here.

Like her other budget ideas, Sawant proposes funding more paid parental leave with one or some combination of the following: a new employee head tax on business, an increase in the city's commercial parking tax, cuts to council members' salaries, and caps on the salaries of top-level executives in other city departments.

Her colleagues do not like these ideas, for parental leave or most anything else. Sawant pitched all of these new revenue sources during this budget cycle and, as has happened in the past, couldn't get enough co-signers for any of them.

The city council will meet Monday to vote on budget changes, and Sawant's office says she'll bring the idea back then. Sawant staffer Ted Virdone says she has identified a "noncontroversial funding source" for the plan, but wouldn't say what that funding source is.

So, as if Monday's budget fight wasn't already interesting enough, it'll be worth watching to see what secret pot of money Sawant has found and how her colleagues react to spending it.

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One more thing: There is a paid parental leave idea that doesn't cost any money and looks likely to pass at city hall on Monday. The council will vote on whether the city should do a study on how to create a paid parental leave program for private sector employees. A few states have programs where employees pay in money to a parental leave program they can access later, like unemployment insurance. Throughout the recent campaign, some have called for a similar program here at the city level.

This legislation would green light a study of how to maybe someday create something like that. So, you know, talk to you all next year when we learn what the study found and whether we're actually going to do anything about it.

You can watch the city council's budget meeting Monday at 10:30 a.m. right here.

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