GOP officials split on whether to adopt Cooper’s paid parental leave directive for state employees

GOP officials split on whether to adopt Cooper’s paid parental leave directive for state employees

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Ag Commissioner Troxler opts in; 770 workers under Treasurer Folwell, Labor Commissioner Berry will not benefit

Beginning next month, new parents working for the state will be able to take up to eight weeks of paid parental leave.

The new benefit, established by an executive order from Gov. Roy Cooper, applies only to employees of state agencies under the governor’s oversight, but, as the governor hoped, most other state agencies have either voluntarily extended the benefit to their employees or are considering it.

Nearly 59,000 employees could benefit from the new policy.

“Paid time off for parents to recover from childbirth and bond with new family members is the right thing to do and I’m grateful that many other agencies agree,” Gov. Cooper said in a prepared statement. “As paid parental leave becomes an increasingly competitive benefit across North Carolina, it also serves as a powerful incentive to recruit, retain and motivate a strong state government workforce.”

Offices that have opted in include: Office of Administrative Hearings, Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, Office of the Commissioner of Banks, Office of the Secretary of State, Office of the State Auditor, Office of the State Controller, Department of Public Instruction, and Department of Justice. The Administrative Office of the Courts, an independent branch of state government, will also be opting in.

Only two offices have explicitly opted out: The N.C. Department of Labor and the Office of the State Treasurer.

Labor Commissioner Cherie Berry and State Treasurer Dale Folwell

Both offices are run by elected Republicans – Labor Commissioner Cherie Berry and State Treasurer Dale Folwell – who said the Democratic governor’s executive order was either unneeded or ill-conceived.

“The Commissioner simply feels that there are sufficient leave programs already available to state employees to address such absences,” said Dolores Quesenberry, spokeswoman for the Department of Labor.

Folwell said he decided against the new leave policy because its details haven’t been sufficiently explained by the Governor.

“I asked the Governor at a recent Council of State meeting what the executive order would cost and how does it work with other federal and state laws on the subject,” Folwell said in a statement to Policy Watch. “He did not know the answer. Therefore, at this time, I chose not to implement the policy.”

The Treasurer’s office currently has 422 employees and the Labor Department 348.

The Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services is also run by a popular elected Republican – Commissioner Steve Troxler.

But political considerations didn’t come into the department’s decision to extend the paid parental benefit to its employees, said Chief Deputy Commissioner David Smith.

“It was a business decision that we thought was the thing to do,” Smith said. “We debated it and in the end we just saw it as a recruitment tool. We thought that maybe we can have an avenue to hire younger employees who may be wanting to start a family. Otherwise we were going to be competing against many agencies who opted in.”

Not just other state agencies in North Carolina, said Vasu Reddy, senior policy counsel for the National Partnership for Women and Families.

With Cooper’s executive order, North Carolina has joined a national movement of state and local governments extending paid parental leave to their own employees and encouraging – or requiring – private industry to follow their lead.

“North Carolina is another state showing that this is a priority for their workforce and a priority for them,” Reddy said. “We’ve had a number of states pass paid family leave laws that cover the entire workforce. These are vitally important because people in all situations need time to care for themselves and their families.”

Other states that have extended the benefit to only their own employees include Delaware, Illinois, Indiana, Maryland, Missouri, Ohio and Virginia.

States requiring the leave be offered by all employers in the state include California, New Jersey, Rhode Island, New York, Washington, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Oregon and Washington, D.C.

Ideally, states would pass laws through their legislatures extending the benefit as widely as possible, Reddy said. But in states like North Carolina, where it was done through executive order, it still sends an important signal.

“It shows that even if the legislature is not yet willing to extend these benefits to the entire workforce, theses states are recognizing the benefits of these policies and they want to make the state a model employer and challenge private businesses to do the same thing.”

Advocates for paid leave say they hope Cooper’s action will spur action in the legislature on paid family leave bills that have been filed but languished without a vote for several legislative sessions.

“Without that North Carolina families are really just in the ‘boss lottery,’” said Beth Messersmith, campaign director for the North Carolina chapter of MomsRising. “The opportunities your family has really just depends on where you happen to work.”

Cooper’s executive order – and his lobbying other state agencies to follow suit and opt in – is an important step in making paid family leave the norm across the state, Messersmith said.

“I think what we’ve seen is that this is how the dominoes fall,” Messersmith said. “It’s a policy that makes sense. It’s good for families and it’s good for business. It’s good for recruiting and retention of employees and we also know from other states that it’s good for morale as well.”

Messersmith said she felt sorry for employees in the offices that opted out.

“I can’t imagine how hard it is for employees to know that one building over, they have paid leave and they don’t have to head straight back to work,” Messersmith said. “I’m sure they are wondering if they are valued as much.”

The paid parental leave benefit created by Cooper’s order is triggered for eligible employees by the qualifying event of becoming a parent by birth, adoption, foster care or other legal placement of a child.

Eligible state employees who give birth will receive eight weeks of paid leave to recover from the birth and to bond with and care for their newborn. Other eligible state employees will receive four weeks of paid leave to bond with and care for the child. Paid Parental Leave will be paid at 100 percent of the eligible employee’s regular pay.

The State Human Resources Commission and the Governor’s Office approved a pilot plan earlier this month to provide an alternate option for participating agencies to administer paid parental leave.

The Department of Justice will use this pilot to offer eight weeks of paid parental leave to both the eligible employee who gives birth and other eligible employee to care for and bond with a newborn or newly adopted, foster, or otherwise legally placed child.

The Administrative Office of the Courts is not under the pilot but will use its independent authority to provide eight weeks to its eligible employees.

Messersmith said that setting this paid leave standard is an important step and that, if data from other states is a predictor, it will likely lead to more local governments and private employers extending and expanding their benefits. Some cities and counties are already well ahead of the state, she said.

There are 17 local and county governments that have paid parental leave for their employees, according to the most recent data collected by MomsRising.

The counties are: Mecklenburg, Durham, Mecklenburg, New Hanover, Orange, Person and Wake.

The cities offering the benefit are: Apex, Cary, Chapel Hill, Charlotte, Durham, Greensboro, Hillsborough, Morrisville, Raleigh, Rolesville and Winston-Salem.

This week the city of Wilmington will consider extending the benefit to its employees as well.

“It’s not just the larger cities, Messersmith said. “It really is happening everywhere. People see the value.”