The Tennessee State Capitol

The Tennessee State Capitol

State employees are well on their way to having paid family leave, thanks to a bill advanced unanimously in the Tennessee Senate on Thursday. If the legislation is signed into law, employees will receive 12 weeks of paid leave for a birth or adoption. 

Paid family leave is something organizations like Think Tennessee and A Better Balance have been advocating for for years, and they hope the state’s move will set an example for private companies. A report released recently by Think Tennessee and A Better Balance found improved productivity, profitability and employee morale in companies that implement paid family leave. The report also asserts that paid family leave will keep Tennessee competitive compared to other states in attracting employees and employers. In the past two years, Georgia, South Carolina and North Carolina introduced paid parental leave to state employees. 

Senate Bill 276/House Bill 324 isn’t the first whack at paid family leave for the state. Gov. Bill Lee announced in early 2020 that he would offer it for state employees, but the measure never came to fruition. Other related bills on the docket this year include SB 275/HB 323, which would in part offer a tax incentive for private companies to offer paid leave for employees on a two-year pilot basis. Lee included $7.3 million in his budget proposal for this bill. Another bill (SB 1458/HB 983) would give teachers six weeks of paid leave after a birth or adoption.

Under the federal Family and Medical Leave Act, passed in 1993, workers who qualify can take up to 12 weeks of unpaid time off for the birth of a child, recovering from an illness or taking care of a loved one. However, the policy only covers about 56 percent of workers, according to Department of Labor surveys. Workers who have been at their job for less than a year or who are employed at workplaces with fewer than 50 employees, for example, are not included. The United States is one of only six countries in the United Nations that do not not have a national paid parental leave policy, according to data from the Bipartisan Policy Center. Democrats in the federal government are pushing for a national paid family leave policy under the FAMILY Act, which calls for 12 weeks of paid family and medical leave. In 2019, President Trump signed into law a 12-week paid leave policy for federal government employees.

“Most of the families we work with — they’re not able to afford to take any extended number of weeks, let alone the full 12 weeks off of work without pay,” says Feroza Freeland, policy manager at the Southern office of A Better Balance and report co-author.  

Report co-authors Dawn Schluckebier and Amy Gore with Think Tennessee say that while they worked on the report for several years, it became especially timely when the pandemic brought up more conversations about parents and caregivers missing work to care for loved ones. According to data from the Urban Institute, from March 2020 through February 2022, employees reported a 50 percent increase in absences from illness, child care needs and family or personal obligations compared to the previous two years. Of those absences, approximately 24 percent of child care absences were paid, compared with 34 percent of absences for family or personal obligations and 45 percent of absences for a worker’s illness. 

People of course don’t only miss work for the birth or adoption of a child. In an ideal world, Think Tennessee and A Better Balance would like to see 12 weeks of paid family leave cover birth parents and non-birthing parents as well as family caregivers. Still, with no federal policies in place — and most of the country without a state policy — the heat is on private companies to provide paid family leave. 

“More and more Southern states are starting to provide dedicated, paid parental leave to their state government employees,” Freeland says. “That’s important both for all of the tens of thousands of state employees and their families, but also to kind of set that example for the private sector.” 

Of large employers in the area surveyed by the Scene, Kroger was the most generous, offering four weeks of paid paternity leave and 10 to 12 weeks paid maternity leave. BlueCross BlueShield offers eight weeks of paid leave for the birthing parent, and four weeks for a non-birthing parent. Dollar General offers birthing parents eight weeks and other parents two weeks. Nissan gives up to 16 weeks, eight paid and eight unpaid. Vanderbilt University Medical Center and HCA hospitals offer two weeks of paid leave following a birth, though VUMC also advertises a flex PTO program. Ascension Saint Thomas and Community Health Systems did not answer requests for information. The Scene’s parent company FW Publishing provides two weeks of paid parental leave.

Whether CEOs or government officials have a heart for the issue or not, paid family leave is still smart business, Freeland says. 

“From the state government’s perspective, they have struggled with worker shortages and high turnover and not being able to retain and recruit workers,” she says. “This is a really important potential tool to help them do that.”

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