Next up (in St. Paul and elsewhere): Paid parental leave

  • Article by: LORI STURDEVANT , Star Tribune
  • Updated: August 29, 2014 - 7:29 PM

It’s an issue that advances a moral cause but also offers practical benefits.

Giving a push to the next great wave of the American women’s movement was probably far from St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman’s mind when he included paid leaves of absence for city employees when they become new parents in his 2015 budget proposal.

Coleman, his chief of staff says, was acting as a concerned manager of a 2,850-person workforce that’s seeing an increase in retirements and a growing need to attract and keep younger workers.

Increasingly, St. Paul will be competing with other public and private employers for scarce young talent, explained chief of staff Erin Dady. “We’re anticipating that we need to attract a new generation, and that a lot of employers are going to be offering this benefit.” Coleman’s proposal would allow a “birthing parent” a four-week paid leave and a “non-birthing parent” two paid weeks off, both in addition to any accrued paid sick leave and/or vacation time a new parent might wish to draw down.

That’s thinking like a smart boss, not a feminist crusader. But here in the crusader’s corner, I’m cheering the parenting leave line in Coleman’s budget. It’s one of several recent developments that has me believing that the unfinished agenda of the 20th century women’s movement is poised to advance in the 21st.

Contemplating that agenda is a timely mental exercise for Labor Day weekend, since it’s much about work. The women’s movement of the 1970s and 1980s opened professional doors that previously had been closed to women. But it wasn’t able to change much inside those doors. Seldom were aims achieved to transform workplaces into family-friendly environments in which men and women could both earn a living and simultaneously see to all the domestic and civic responsibilities of adulthood.

But signs of late say change is coming. The enactment of the Women’s Economic Security Act by the 2014 Legislature is one. Among other things, it expanded the state-required, job-protected — but unpaid — parental leave for larger employers from six to 12 weeks. The revival of the Equal Rights Amendment, due for a fresh push at a Sept. 13 rally in Washington, is another.

Three states — California, New Jersey and Rhode Island — require at least some employers to offer new parents paid leaves of absence; Washington state is in the process of implementing a plan. In each case, leaves are financed via an insurance model, with “premiums” paid at least in part by employees via a modest payroll tax.

Three major U.S. cities — San Francisco, Chicago, and Austin, Texas — offer their employees paid parental leaves, Dady said. St. Paul would be the first Minnesota city to do so if the City Council endorses Coleman’s recommendation, she said, though it’s under consideration elsewhere. (She noted that St. Paul has “sister city” relationships with 10 cities in other countries. In all of them, paid leaves for employees after the birth or adoption of a child are the norm.)

In St. Paul, property taxpayers would foot the bill, which is small as city budget lines go — $200,000 for 2015. But it’s likely that cost will rise in subsequent years. Not only will more adults of child-birthing age populate the workforce, but more of them are likely to be women. Today, only 31 percent of St. Paul’s city employees are female.

Dady said that while reaction to the proposal has been “overwhelmingly positive,” she has heard “a little bit of feedback about cost. I tell people, there’s a cost to losing employees, too. Rehiring and retraining workers is expensive. If we can offer a benefit that will keep young people in the workforce, I think we’ll come out ahead.”

California’s experience since requiring paid leaves in most workplaces beginning in 2004 is instructive. A study by the Center for Economic and Policy Research found that employee retention improved after paid leaves were offered. Employers reported that their costs have been smaller than they initially feared.

But the best news for society in that study is that California newborns got a better start in life because their parents could spend more time with them. Workers who had paid leaves breast-fed their babies longer, which is associated with better health for both mother and child. Parents had time to find child care arrangements they considered satisfactory. Men who took parenting leaves reported more bonding with their children. Family stability is enhanced — and that’s a very worthy goal.

“There’s been a generational shift,” said Debra Fitzpatrick of the Center for Women and Public Policy at the Humphrey School of Public Affairs. “Young people want to work for employers where there is some consideration for work/life balance.”

She pointed to a Bentley University study of millennial-generation attitudes about work. It reported that millennials “will seek other options, such as starting their own companies, if they cannot find workplaces that accommodate their personal values — prominent among them time allocation, relationships and job security.”

In Minnesota, labor force growth is expected to slow to stall stage in the next 10 years. Boosting retention of young workers is bound to become a prime coping strategy for employers during the labor drought that’s coming. Here’s hoping that Minnesota employers soon will be able to look to St. Paul to see how paying new parents while they take time off with their babies can help.

 

Lori Sturdevant, an editorial writer and columnist, is at Lori.Sturdevant@startribune.com.

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