Parental leave advocates brought their kid to city council chambers last year.
Parental leave advocates brought their kids to city council chambers last year. City of Seattle

When the city announced last year that it would, for the first time ever, offer new parents who work for the city four weeks of paid parental leave, then-Council Member Jean Godden had this to say: “Is this benefit enough? Absolutely not. But it is a welcome start and a step in the right direction.”

She was right that four weeks was far from enough, and today the city offered a next step. Mayor Ed Murray and most of the Seattle City Council announced today that the city now plans to add another four weeks of paid parental leave to its policy and create a new policy providing all city employees four weeks of paid leave to care for a sick family member.

Employees using either type of leave could combine it with their vacation or sick time to have more time off. The city says that "will ensure that virtually all city employees who become new parents will have at least 12 weeks of paid leave" with some getting 16 weeks. (To get family leave, employees would first have to use all but about two three weeks of their sick leave and five days of their vacation. There's no similar requirement for parental leave.)

The parental leave extension will cost $1.7 million and family leave about $600,000. According to city council staff, departments will find that money in existing budgets, not through cuts. (We'll see whether that's true when it comes time to argue about the city budget this fall.)

The announcement is part of a larger workforce equity plan released by the city's human resources department. The mayor and council also propose hiring new HR staff to work on bias training and recruiting.

Murray called today's announcement "the most comprehensive effort on the part of the city to promote greater workplace equity." Most council members echoed his comments: "These new policies will put Seattle on the leading edge of progressive employment practices in America, a nation that is sadly one of only three in the world that does not offer paid parental leave," said Council Member Lorena González, whose committee has been leading work on the policy, in a statement.

But two council members were conspicuously missing from the mayor's press release: lefty Murray agitators Mike O'Brien and Kshama Sawant. Last year, Sawant led an effort to try to institute 12 weeks of paid leave for city employees, but her fellow council members killed it. An aide in her office, Ted Virdone, said today "of course Kshama supports the [new] policy," but she wanted to talk to the city's labor unions before signing on. O'Brien's office said he is out of town.

Morgan Beach, a women's rights advocate and co-chair of the Seattle Women's Commission (though she was not speaking on behalf of the commission) said in an interview, "At first glance it's a really good policy." But, she added, "I don't think it's a particularly cutting edge policy. It's bringing us up to the minimum standard."

According to Pew Research, the median amount of paid maternal time offered by developed countries around the globe is five to six months. Estonia offers about two years paid time off.

Beach said the new family leave policy (for taking care of a sick family member) is a women's issue too. "It closes a really important gap... [because] caregiving burdens for family members—other than just introducing a baby into the home—disproportionally fall on women."

The new policies are likely to pass the full council easily, but then the much harder work will begin: achieving paid parental leave in the private sector. The Women's Commission has been pushing for a policy requiring paid leave citywide, either through a mandate that employers provide it or an insurance program into which both employers and employees pay, like California offers. (San Francisco recently passed an even more robust private sector paid leave policy.)

In a statement today, Council Member Lisa Herbold signed on in support of the eight week city policy, but acknowledged its limits. "The most stark inequities in our workforce exist outside of City Hall," Herbold said. "There are many parents in Seattle that do not receive any paid leave at all to care for a new child."