Parents brought their children to city council chambers in 2015 to advocate for paid parental leave.
Parents brought their children to city council chambers in 2015 to advocate for paid parental leave. City of Seattle

UPDATE: The Seattle City Council voted unanimously this afternoon to approve a new paid leave policy for city employees, expanding leave for new parents from four to 12 weeks and creating a new four-week family leave policy for employees who need to care for sick family members. (The vote was 8-0; Council Member Debora Juarez was absent.)

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Speaking ahead of the vote, Council Member Lorena González praised the "vision and tenacity" of former Council Member Jean Godden, who pushed for the existing four week policy. "This council has recognized that four weeks was certainly a step in the right direction but needed to be more," González said. "We all know the science behind the benefit of paid parental leave."

In a rare step, the council did not consider the policy through its normal council committee process, but referred it directly to today's full council vote. The new policy will take effect retroactively, meaning employees who have had children or ill family members since January 1 can qualify for the leave.

ORIGINAL POST:

At today's 2 pm meeting, the Seattle City Council will vote on a new policy giving city workers more paid time off when they become parents. The policy will mean new parents who work for the city can take up to 12 weeks of paid time off, and employees who need to care for an ill family member can take up to four weeks off with pay. On the dais today, council members will hail the policy as a victory for gender equity in the workplace. When he signs the bill in the next week, Mayor Ed Murray is likely to do the same. Everyone will be very self-congratulatory.

But all of this may sound a little familiar. That's because back in July, Murray and Seattle City Council member Lorena González announced these same policies. González—who chairs the council's Gender Equity, Safe Communities and New Americans Committee—said at the time they would "put Seattle on the leading edge of progressive employment practices in America" and promised they would take effect by January 1.

Seven months later, those "leading-edge" policies still aren't in place. And that has left some employees struggling to plan for their own pregnancies.

To be sure, expanding paid parental and family leave for city employees is good news. The city currently gives its employees four weeks of paid parental leave, a dismal amount compared to other developed countries around the world. While women make up almost half of today's work force, they are still more likely than men to take significant amounts of time off work or quit their jobs to care for children. Low wage workers and workers of color are less likely to have access to paid leave. Paid parental leave is a proven way to help new parents bond with their children and to help women stay in the workforce, and leave for sick family members also benefits women, who are more likely to serve as caretakers. The city strengthening its own policies will also help lay the groundwork for an eventual requirement that private businesses offer paid leave, too. (Morgan Beach, co-chair of the Seattle Women's Commission, said the policy is "heading in the right direction" and her group is now focused on the private sector.)

Unfortunately, bureaucracy is slow. That's nothing new, especially in Seattle. Still, the length of time the policy took to implement has meant some pregnant city employees heard about the promised new policy last summer, but gave birth before it was actually implemented. Others, who are now trying to plan for giving birth, have been unsure if or when they will have access to the benefit.

One city employee who spoke to The Stranger said she was able to use the city’s four-week policy when she had her first baby in 2015. This winter, as she began preparing to have her second child in the spring, she expected to have access to at least eight, if not 12 weeks of paid parental leave. But when she asked around, city human resources staff told her she would get only four weeks and they didn’t know the status of the new policy. When she tried to look up the policy herself, she found media coverage of the July announcement but nothing after that.

“I felt very disheartened that no one knew anything,” said the employee, who asked that we not publish her name or the department she works in for fear of retaliation. “Now I’m in the spot of just hoping. It’s very hard to plan.”

The employee said at least three people in her department, both men and women, are preparing for upcoming births. According to city council documents, about 222 city employees per year will use paid parental leave. That means that in the six months between when the council announced the policy and when it will take effect, around 100 employees may have had new babies without access to the much-touted policy.

When asked about why the policy was delayed, a spokesperson for González's office directed questions to the mayor's office. A spokesperson for the mayor said the city was "working through a complicated policy to try to make the policy work with the current policies." In an email, City Budget Office director Ben Noble said the city has been doing more analysis of how much the policy would cost, and considering how to make sure new employees (who haven't yet accrued much sick or vacation time) get sufficient leave. "Crafting a policy" that balances the needs of workers who have a lot of accrued sick and vacation time with those who don't "was a complicated process," Noble said. CLARIFICATION: The mayor's office argues it always intended to have the policy in place by January 1 and the policy passed today will be retroactive to January 1. I've clarified this post to reflect that. The mayor's office does not, however, dispute that it is now five weeks past that promised delivery date nor that some city employees may have had trouble finding out if or when they would get access to the benefit and what exactly it would look like.

Once the new policy is in place, anyone who has worked at the city at least six months will get 12 weeks of paid leave when they become a parent (including mothers and fathers, births, adoptions, foster care, and legal guardianship). Just how they get to 12 weeks depends on how much sick and vacation time they have stored up. Every qualifying employee will get at least eight weeks of paid parental leave. Then, they'll have to use all but one week of their accrued vacation time and all but two weeks of their sick time. If their time isn't enough to get them to 12 weeks of leave, the city will cover the gap.

The convoluted policy is a mixed bag. It's not as generous as the city just flat-out covering 12 weeks, but it's slightly better than some other benefits, like those of King County, which requires employees to use all but one week of their vacation and one week of their sick time. Together, the parental leave and family leave policies will cost the city about $3 million a year.

Like many new parents, the employee who spoke to The Stranger explained the importance of staying home with her first child as a way of recovering and bonding.

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“It takes a huge toll on your body and on top of that, the time spent bonding with your baby so important,” she said. “It’s kind of heartbreaking to leave a tiny little baby that you feel is helpless at daycare.”

“When I talk to my friends in the private sector, they’re shocked that I’m not getting at least 12 [weeks of paid parental leave],” the employee added. “For the city to claim to be a leader—we’re not. We’re not even close.”

If you're a city employee affected by this policy or its delay and you want to talk, email me. You can remain anonymous.

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