City Council and Mayor Propose Parental and Family Leave Expansion

The City Council and the Mayor made a big joint announcement today: a plan for increasing the parental leave benefit for employees of the City of Seattle as well as adding a paid family leave benefit.

The plan, spearheaded by Council member Lorena Gonzalez, extends the existing policy of 4 weeks of paid parental leave to 8 weeks, with an option to append additional accrued vacation time and sick time. It also creates a “family leave” program of up to 4 weeks to care for an ill family member. Cori Simmons, Deputy Chief of Staff in Gonzalez’s office, described in an email to me how the parental leave policy calculates the maximum time someone can take off:

“Any employee who has been with the City for 1 year would have access to a potential of 12+ weeks of parental leave (8 paid parental + accrued sick and vacation – we accrue sick leave at a rate of 3 weeks per year and vacation at a rate of about 14-20 days a year depending on full-time position). We project that the average employee will take 16 weeks, 8 + 8 sick and vacation.”

This legislation is a signature effort for new Council member Gonzalez, whose Gender Equity, Safe Communities, and New Americans Committee has been holding hearings on it for several weeks as they work through the details. From today’s press release:

“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 Councilmember Lorena González, Chair of the Gender Equity, Safe Communities and New Americans Committee, which will hear the recommendations next week. “I hope that local businesses take note of our policies and see that paid family leave is an essential part of a healthy, productive workforce.”

These two programs fit into a larger effort by the Mayor and Council to address workforce equity issues.

While the policy only addresses employees of the City of Seattle, Gonzalez told me in an email this afternoon that she continues to look at a broader policy that would address all workers in Seattle:

“Yes, my office will continue to explore paid family leave policy options for private employers.  In August, I will co-host a private sector paid family leave symposium with Councilmember Bagshaw at the University of Washington that will include national and local experts on paid family leave policies.  Seattle must continue to lead on these progressive workplace policies because the State has failed to fund the statewide paid family leave law and because Congress has failed to pass a national law to provide all workers with this important benefit.”

An issue is where the money will come from in the City’s budget to pay for this new benefit.The cost of the parental leave plan is estimated at $1.7 million annually, and the family leave plan at $600,000.  Council member Gonzalez told me:

“We are awaiting the Mayor’s Proposed Budget for 2017-2018 but we anticipate that the funds will come from the general fund. The current 4 week paid parental leave benefit is drawn mostly from departmental budgets – meaning that departments are asked to hold aside un-used monies to fund paid parental leave. All but one department was able to fund the 4 week paid parental leave benefit without reaching into the general fund this year (a small amount was set aside in the general fund to supplement departments that fell short).”

Of note: today’s announcement was issued jointly by the Mayor and seven of the nine City Council members: everyone except Kshama Sawant and Mike O’Brien.  O’Brien is presumably out of town (he has been absent from meetings last week and this week) and might not have been available to approve the final details. Sawant most likely saw this as a weaker policy than what she wanted; I expect she will refer to it as “eight weeks” since the last four must come from accrued vacation time, and push for extending it to twelve. And she will no doubt point out that it doesn’t cover private employers. It will be interesting to see whether she convenes a rally of her supporters to demand that the City Council and Mayor adopt a more ambitious plan. It’s a challenging calculus for her right now, as she is pushing forward on her multi-part “tenant’s bill of rights” and can’t afford to alienate her colleagues on the Council before those bills come up for a vote. At the same time, she doesn’t want to look weak for her supporters on local issues, especially when she has been spending so much time outside the city recently speaking out in favor of Bernie Sanders making a third-party run for President. But the city’s budget realities this year are challenging, and with seven Council members staking out their positions by signing onto the framework today it’s not clear that allocating more money to further extend parental and family leave is a battle she can win.

The details of the policy need to run the gauntlet of the City Council legislative process. As Gonzalez explained to me:

“The policy needs to be negotiated with the City’s unions but we expect to pass the ordinance hopefully in August (it goes through my committee first, then to full council). The funds for these measures will be appropriated during the budget process in the Fall. The policy will be effective January 1, 2017. Tune into GESCNA on July 13th for the full WFE briefing.”