King County’s Paid Leave Policy Less Generous Than Advertised

King County Executive Dow Constantine’s proposal to provide 12 weeks of paid sick leave to county employees—three times the relatively paltry month the city recently decided to offer—has been almost universally praised for its generosity and parity with the minimum leave offered in other developed nations. The Stranger said that the county “continues to embarrass the City of Seattle on paid parental leave” and called the move “a big step” compared to the city’s new policy. Seattlish, which generally writes Constantine’s name  as “<3 Dow Constantine <3,” said the county had done “what Seattle City Council Wouldn’t: 12 Paid Weeks for Parents.”

The truth is much, much murkier. The county’s plan requires employees to exhaust all but one week each of sick leave and vacation leave before they take their 12 weeks, leaving new parents with virtually no remaining leave to use in the future if their kid gets sick, if their other kids get sick, if the parents themselves get sick, if they need to take time off for some other reason, if they want to spend more than 12 weeks with their newborn, or if they just want to take a vacation.

Although King County officials are quick to point out that new parents can, technically, take less leave (say, six weeks instead of 12) and avoid exhausting all their leave that way (if a worker had nine weeks of leave accrued and wanted to take six weeks off, three weeks would still remain on the books), that isn’t 12 weeks off. It’s six. The city, in contrast, provides just four weeks of guaranteed leave but doesn’t require workers to burn through all their sick time to get it.

Council member Rod Dembowski, who sponsored the legislation, did not return calls for comment. (A staffer did get back to me to say that Dembowski was unavailable.) But council member Joe McDermott, another supporter, says that while he “acknowledge[s] that that’s a compromise in the legislation, the value of affording all new parents paid parental leave really does have great value. Many of the people who would be taking parental leave are younger, earlier in their career, and wouldn’t have banked as much leave time.”

What McDermott is referring to is the fact that, under the county system, new employees would benefit substantially more than workers with more tenure, because they would get 12 weeks paid leave no matter what. For example, a worker who had accrued two weeks’ vacation and sick leave would get to keep that leave and take 12 weeks off to care for a new child, no questions asked. However, given the long tenure of most county employees, and the speed with which county workers rack up leave (the average accrued leave, according to the county executive’s report on the proposal, is 460 hours, or just shy of 12 weeks), the parental leave policy would function largely as a way to spend down accrued employee hours, at minimal ($2.9 million) annual cost to the county. The caveat to that, of course, is that newer workers are more likely to be younger, and new parents (at least new mothers ) are usually under 40.

Marilyn Watkins, policy director at the progressive Economic Opportunity Institute, says “requiring employees to spend down their leave is the wrong approach.” Paid parental leave, Watkins says, “should be in addition to other kinds of leave, because people still need sick leave. If you’re pregnant, you need to go to all your appointments. If you have another child, that child is bound to get sick. You might yourself get sick. And heaven forbid you go on vacation!”

Denise Pruitt, a senior policy advisor in the county’s human resources division who responded to a request for comment from county executive Constantine, says the county has “other safeguards in place, things like donated leave, where, if somebody is in a pickle, they could take time off” even without accrued leave. “We try to do everything we can to help people,” she says.leave

But Jessica Knaster Wasse, a program manager in the county’s public health division who submitted testimony to the council saying the policy “is not competitive with other local employers (including City of Seattle) who do not force leave exhaustion prior to providing a benefit,” says those “safeguards” aren’t enough. She should know—she became a mom while working at the county, and is currently pregnant and “due at any second.”

“Coming back to work  with all your leave exhausted in the first year of your child’s life is really hard and challenging,” she says. “Kids  get sick all the time, especially if the kid is in day care. And God forbid you want to take any time off or just get sick yourself. It’s better than nothing or having to take unpaid leave, which disadvantages low-wage workers, but I just don’t think it’s a model policy.

“It’s just kind of a letdown.”

The city’s policy, by the way, has exactly the inverse impact. New workers, who haven’t accrued much leave yet, get to take the least time off (potentially only four weeks total, as guaranteed by the new policy), and more-tenured workers can take as much time as they have accrued. A city employee who has accrued, say, 16 weeks of leave could take up to 20 weeks off—four plus his vacation and sick time.

On the other hand, newer employees may get just four weeks, which, as Wasse points out from experience, “is not nearly enough time to be with a new child. I gave birth to children myself and I can guarantee that after four weeks, I was not physically recovered from childbirth, let alone ready to put my tiny little infant in day care.”

Each is better than the previous policy of no parental leave at all. But neither meets the international standard of 12 weeks of paid parental leave, period, on top of sick and vacation time. (As the county executive’s report on the program notes, “The United States stands virtually alone in not mandating paid leave of any type for its workers.”) The city’s provides as little as four weeks guaranteed time off; the county guarantees 12 weeks but requires long-term employees to exhaust as much as 10 weeks of their sick leave, reducing the actual parental leave time to two weeks.

Both the city and the county cited budget constraints in passing their admittedly inadequate plans. In the county’s case, the cost of passing a real 12-week plan—one that would guarantee “twelve weeks of additional paid leave fully funded by the county,” as a staff report describes it—would have been an additional $1.5 million. The county’s 2015-2016 budget, for context, is almost $9 billion.

“It’s not even that much money,” Wasse says. “I understand that the county has budget constraints, and I guess I would just say that if we’re committed to the health of our citizens and the health of our children, you have to think about not just out-of-pocket costs but return on investment.”

Pruitt with the human resources division says the plan Constantine sent to the council was “the least expensive plan that allowed the county to provide all employees 12 weeks of leave,” with the understanding that “the plan that will more greatly benefit new employees” and those with “little or no leave” stored up. “In a perfect world, we would love to give everybody 12 additional weeks, but we’re a public entity. We have a responsibility to be fiscally responsible, and we have limited resources, and we have budget constraints.”

And McDermott disputes the notion that $1.5 million—which, he notes, would represent a 50 percent increase over the current $1.9 million plan—is not a lot of money. Just last week, he says, “We didn’t move an ordinance out of [the council budget] committee this morning because of a cost of $68,000, and we adjourned, and that legislation will be there next year for the new committee chair to consider. So sometimes, small amounts of money become big.”

So if the county’s current policy isn’t ideal, what is?

Both advocates like Watkins and budget-conscious council members like McDermott and Dembowski seem to agree that comprehensive paid family leave—guaranteed time off for major health-related events including not just pregnancy but health conditions of an employee or an employee’s family member—is the gold standard for leave policies. Unlike paid parental leave, which the county estimates would be used by less than 2 percent of the workforce in any given year, paid family leave has the potential to benefit all county workers.

“People need all sorts of leave, and we shouldn’t be privileging certain activities,” Wasse says.

The catch, of course, is that it costs money—much more money. The county estimates that 12 weeks of family leave for all its employees would cost between $27 million and $56 million, which is why, as Dembowski put it at last month’s budget meeting on the adopted 12-week proposal, “we believe paid family leave would be most effective if it was addressed at the state level.”

Washington state adopted a paid family leave law several years ago, but has never funded the program; recently, the state received a $247,000 grant to study implementing the program for workers statewide.

Watkins, whose group supports paid family leave, says she hopes that the private companies that have announced their own generous leave programs in the past year “will join the city and the county in advocating at the state level for a full state program” so that everyone in the state (not just government workers, and not just new parents) can take time off for their families.

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