City employees—and their kids—talk about how parental leave legislation would benefit them at a city council committee last week.
City employees—and their kids—talk about how parental leave legislation would benefit them at a city council committee last week. City of Seattle

The city council just unanimously approved a new policy giving all city employees four weeks of paid time off when they have a baby, adopt, or become foster parents.

"This is a momentous day for our city," council member Jean Godden, who's championed the legislation, said from the dais.

It's about damn time.

Paid parental leave—usually much longer than four weeks—is the norm in developed countries around the world and is an important way to keep women in the workforce. That, in turn, can allow them to advance to higher paying leadership positions, an area where women are often underrepresented.

Godden has been pushing paid parental leave as part of her efforts on gender pay equity ever since the head of a city department told her his employees were cobbling together vacation time to make sure they didn't have to come back to work the day after their babies were born. Godden also—no thanks to Mayor Ed Murray—got her fellow council members to set aside $500,000 to pay for a parental leave policy over the next two years. Then, in February, she and Murray introduced the policy together. It will cost about $1.35 million a year, which the council's funding should cover for the rest of this year and the mayor is expected to include in future budgets.

Before today's vote, several city employees who've recently had a baby or are pregnant spoke about the stress of growing their families while taking unpaid time off or trying to combine vacation and sick time in order to stay home with a new baby. This new policy will allow all city employees who've worked at the city for at least six months, regardless of gender, to take four weeks of paid time off (not necessarily consecutively) within the first year after they become new parents.

As I've pointed out before, the science around how much leave new parents and babies need is complex, but four weeks is, even by Godden's admission, not enough time. This bill also does nothing to require paid parental leave in the private sector. Still, it's a first step.

Council member Kshama Sawant told her fellow council members she hopes they'll consider expanding the policy to 12 weeks in the next budget cycle and supporting future efforts to require the private sector to offer parental leave, too.

But, she said, "for this moment I am very happy to vote in favor of this bill."

Meanwhile, King County Council members are debating their own proposal, which would direct King County Executive Dow Constantine to design a 12-week paid parental leave program by August and send legislation back to the council to implement it. The King County Council is set to vote on the plan next Monday.