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What does parental leave look like in the Treasure Valley? It depends on the city

Taking time off as a new parent is a protected right under federal law, but being paid for that time is not a guarantee.
Credit: Idaho Press
Colin Hickman shares a moment with his son, Jack, in the living room of their Boise home Monday, Sept. 16, 2019.

BOISE, Idaho — Many fathers head back to work soon after their new child is born, but Colin Hickman stayed home with his wife and their newborn son, Jack, for six weeks at the beginning of this year.

While he and his wife bonded with their first child and learned to navigate the unfamiliar waters of parenthood together, Hickman’s paychecks from the city of Boise kept rolling in. He is one of 85 city employees, men and women, to take advantage of six weeks of paid leave for new parents since the policy was implemented in mid-2016.

“The ability not to have to think about a paycheck while you’re home is great, because you want all of your attention onto your new child,” Hickman said. “Not having to think about that enabled me to put 100% of my focus on Jack.”

Taking time off as a new parent is a protected right under federal law, but being paid for that time is not a guarantee. The United States is the only industrialized nation in the world that doesn’t require workers to be paid for maternity or paternity leave, allowing employers to decide how much time, if any, it will pay workers to stay home with their children.

RELATED: Recent study ranks Idaho 'worst state for working moms'

Under the 1993 Family Medical Leave Act, male and female employees in the public and private sector are allowed to take up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave after a child is born. Paid leave is much rarer.

Boise is the only locality in the Treasure Valley to offer paid leave for six weeks. Meridian, starting next month, plans to offer two weeks of paid parental leave, with details pending city council approval.

Part of a new benefits package, this will be the first time Meridian has offered paid parental leave. Mayor Tammy de Weerd said providing paid leave was an “important piece of feedback” the city received from its staff.

“As we continue to promote Meridian as family-friendly and a great place to live, work and raise your family, we need to support the families,” De Weerd told the Idaho Press.

The new benefit enhancements should help with retention, she said.

“We can’t pay what industry is paying, and it is not about keeping up with the Joneses," she said. "But it is about having a good, efficient benefit package for our employees, using their feedback on what is most important to them for our employee retention, because it is extremely expensive losing employees."

De Weerd said the city of Boise is one of the Meridian’s main competitors.

“The city of Boise is where we lose employees to," she said. "We cannot keep up with their wages, so we hope that some of these other investments in our employees and the work culture can help."

Unless the leave is paid, employees must either forgo compensation while they are adjusting to parenthood or use their accrued vacation or sick time to cover the time off.

Kelcey Stewart, Boise’s director of human resources, said although Boise cannot pay its employees as well as similar jobs in the private sector, being able to offer paid leave has helped recruit talented employees.

“What we are hearing is the experience from the employees who have participated in it and how valuable it has been and new employees who have been recruited that is one of the things they have heard about,” Stewart said. “… Specifically we have a senior manager who we were able to attract from the private sector and (paid leave) was one of those main pieces and that was tied to her saying, ‘I want to be a leader and contribute to something with purpose, but I’m being pulled with the family side as well.'"

Ada County only offers the minimum of 12 weeks of unpaid leave as required by the federal law. Spokeswoman Elizabeth Duncan said the county covers short-term disability for mothers. This pays 60% of an eligible employee’s wages for six weeks, or eight weeks for a Caesarean section, or C-section.

CANYON COUNTY

Benefits for new parents are even slimmer in Canyon County.

Canyon County employees are able to take up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave if they have been working for the county for at least a year and clocked 25 hours per week for 50 weeks during the previous year.

The city of Nampa follows the standard leave policy outlined in FMLA, according to Senior Human Resources Manager Jamie Chapman. Mothers and fathers are provided up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave, and can use some or all of the paid time off they have accrued to get paid leave, she said.

The city of Nampa has 735 full-time employees as of Sept. 3. Of those, 451 are men and 284 are women.

City staff are not reviewing its parental leave policy currently, and Chapman said she does not know of any changes made in recent years. She said the city’s leave policy is working well. She doesn't know of the city ever losing any employees to other jobs because of its paternal leave policy. Chapman said city officials periodically review their competitors’ policies to consider what benefits could be provided to their employees.

Like Nampa, the city of Caldwell follows FMLA policy on its parental leave packages for employees, said Monica Jones, Caldwell’s human resources director. Employees are offered 12 weeks of unpaid leave and can access the paid time off they’ve collected to be paid during that period.

As of Aug. 23, Jones said Caldwell employed 215 men and 110 women. The city has not made any major changes to its parental leave policy in the last five years, she said.

Jones has been Caldwell’s human resources director for 18 years, and in that time, she said the city has not lost any employees due to its parental leave policy, nor have any employees raised concerns about parental leave.

In Jones’ time with the city, she observed that most employees don’t take the full 12 weeks of their leave. On average, she said new parents take about eight weeks off. If they take longer than eight weeks, she said employees will often choose to quit their jobs entirely.

Jones said this is particularly common for women employees who want to spend more time with their children. As a parent herself, she said coming back to work and leaving a newborn at home is difficult for parents.

“It feels like your heart is being ripped out of your chest,” she said.

In her time with the city, Jones said she has never had an employee request an extension for their parental leave.

STATE OF IDAHO

For state employees in Idaho, leave policies follow federal guidelines and allow for up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave. Just like many other localities in the Treasure Valley, if workers would like to be paid during that time, they must use their sick or vacation time.

Susan Buxton, head of the state Division of Human Resources, said state policies allow up to six weeks of sick leave to be taken to recover from a normal childbirth, or eight weeks for a cesarean section. State employees can take up to six weeks to bond with a new baby, but they’d have to use their vacation time.

“The FMLA protects your job, but of course, 12 weeks is a long amount of time to not have a paycheck,” Buxton said. “So then you can use accrued leave.”

New fathers can take family medical leave to care for a family member with a qualifying health condition, which would include taking care of a mom and/or newborn baby, Buxton said, but they’d have to use their accrued sick leave hours.

State employees accrue 3.7 hours of sick leave per two-week pay period; that’s 2.4 weeks per year. If unused, it continues to add up from year to year.

“There’s no max in sick leave,” Buxton said. “You can continue to accrue sick leave.”

PRIVATE SECTOR

Idaho has no specific paid-leave policy or law for new or adopting parents, whether they’re state employees or in the private sector.

Private employers fall under the federal FMLA if they have 50 or more employees, but according to the Idaho Department of Labor, 96.7% of Idaho businesses have fewer than 50 employees. Those small businesses employ more than 280,000 people, more than half of all the workers in the state.

Smith + Malek PLLC, a law firm with offices in Boise, Coeur d’Alene and Sandpoint, recently started offering 12 weeks of fully paid parental leave for all its full-time employees. 

“Historically, it’s not offered — we don’t see this at all,” said Tara Malek, a partner at the firm. “And oftentimes you’ve got young families who have to decide between their career and being a parent, and that’s just not a fair choice to have to make.”

Chobani, the yogurt manufacturer in Twin Falls, made waves in 2017 when it launched a new benefit providing six weeks of paid parental leave for all its employees, including new moms or dads who have given birth, adopted, or taken custody of a foster child.

RELATED: Idaho company praised for parental leave policy

“Chobani is always striving to do more for its families and communities and recognizes the importance of time spent with a new child,” the company said in a press release. “This paid parental leave policy is important for Chobani, but it is also part of a critical conversation about the need for increased parental leave in the U.S.”

Large national employers, from Target and CVS to Walmart, Walgreens and Starbucks have announced new or expanded paid leave policies in the past two years, according to tracking reports from the National Partnership for Women and Families.

Katherine Eyster, deputy director of workplace programs for the partnership, said, “We think that it’s definitely significant and promising to see so many of the larger companies in the U.S. providing new and extended parental leave benefits, but we do know that it is moving far too slowly to ever make up the difference. Right now, we know that only 17% of working people have access to paid family leave through their employer. … It’s 16% in the private sector.”

Idaho earned an F grade in the partnership’s latest survey of state workplace leave policies; it was among nine states earning that failing grade, including Utah and Wyoming. Washington earned an A-, and Oregon a B+. Montana got a C, and Nevada, a D-.

“Eight states and the District of Columbia have introduced paid leave plans or programs in the last decade,” Eyster said. “Companies repeatedly tell us, and surveys of small business owners repeatedly tell us, that they need the support of public policy to fully close the gap and make this affordable for businesses to offer.”

According to the International Labour Organization, an agency of the United Nations, just two of 185 nations it surveyed for its 2014 “Maternity and Paternity at Work” report — Papua New Guinea and the United States — had no law requiring paid maternity or paternity leave. The average paid leave for new moms was 42 weeks among the 36 countries that are part of the Organisation for European Economic Cooperation, or OECC; that figure was tallied in 2011.

PAID LEAVE FOR FATHERS

More and more, paid parental leave policies around the world are becoming gender-neutral, Eyster said, as fathers increasingly play a bigger role in raising children.

“Since 1965, we know that fathers in the U.S. have nearly tripled the time that they spend caring for their children,” she said. Yet few are able to take time off work when their new child arrives, she said.

A 2014 Boston College study “showed that a staggering three out of four new fathers took only one week or less of leave, whether paid or unpaid, when welcoming a new child into the family.”

In Boise, Stewart said some of the loudest feedback has come from men who have taken paternity leave. One employee wrote her a letter thanking the city for the benefit, calling the time home with his newborn child "the most special season of (his) entire life."

Hickman agreed. 

“It was amazing,” he said. “Not only do you have a new member of the family, but it reconfigures the whole family relationship between you and your spouse. There’s a new member of the family and it’s a crazy time — and I just soaked up every single minute of it.”

This article originally appeared in the Idaho Press, read more on IdahoPress.com.

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