By Brooke Stephenson, originally published by Carolina Public Press. Carolina Public Press is an independent, in-depth and investigative nonprofit news service for North Carolina.
In late 2020, Buncombe County became the seventh county in North Carolina to offer paid parental leave, providing employees eight weeks of paid leave for the birth or adoption of a newborn and six weeks to care for a sick family member.
“These policies are about responding to the realities of employees’ lives and creating an organizational and work culture that supports employees across the span of their lives,” said Buncombe County Commissioner Jasmine Beach-Ferrara, who campaigned on paid family leave four years ago.
“In North Carolina, there’s a chance for cities and counties to help lead on this issue and establish these policies as a new standard that all employers would strive to offer.”
Katie Tallman, a nutritionist for Buncombe County, is excited for the policy as she and her husband have discussed having children and foster parenting.
“This new ordinance would allow me to have enough leave time in either case … without the burden of worrying about having enough paid leave time or a decrease in income during those early critical weeks of having a little one,” Tallman said. “It has taken those two worries out of the equation.”
Carla Hollar, a Buncombe County librarian, will also feel the effect of the paid family leave policy. She is the primary caregiver for her 85-year-old mother, who frequently requires full-time care.
“Having this padding helps tremendously because you can’t send them off to a nursing home to stay if there’s a very good likelihood they’re going to get sick from being there.” Hollar said. “I’m sure that’s the same way it is with preschools.”
State and local governments step in
Buncombe is the latest North Carolina county to provide paid family leave. Durham, Mecklenburg, Wake, New Hanover and Orange counties offer six weeks or more, and Person county provides 30 days. Twelve city governments in North Carolina also provide some form of paid parental leave.
Family leave benefits have not expanded significantly on the national level since the passage of the Family and Medical Leave Act in 1993. The FMLA provides 12 weeks of unpaid leave to qualified employees working for a public agency or a private agency with more than 50 employees.
According to the Pew Research Center, in a 2018 survey, the U.S. was the only country of 41 nations surveyed that did not mandate any paid leave for new parents.
In contrast, in the past decade state and local family leave benefits have been expanding across the country.
Jeff Hayes, program director at the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, thinks state and local governments were prompted to act by two things: optimistic results of Obama-era research on paid family leave and the success of California, Rhode Island and New Jersey, all early adopters of the policy.
Most local governments cannot afford to provide paid family leave to both private and public employees in their jurisdictions. Instead, some local governments choose to act as “model employers” by providing benefits to their workforces, Hayes explains.
“Opting to cover their own workforce is a way to move the needle on providing an important benefit and set an example to the business community for what it means to be a good workplace or good employer,” Hayes said.
In some state, like North Carolina, local governments act as model employers when the legislature declines to pass a statewide policy.
In 2019, Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper signed an executive order granting employees of state agencies under his oversight eight weeks of paid parental leave and encouraging other state agencies to follow his lead. Many did so, wishing to remain competitive with other agencies.
Local governments passed paid parental leave policies before the conversation reached the state level. In 2016, Durham County and the city of Greensboro became the first county and city to pass paid parental leave.
Durham Commissioner Wendy Jacobs, who led the push for paid parental leave in her county, considers the policy a win-win.
“In terms of remaining competitive and retaining and attracting the most talented staff, it is a win,” Jacobs said. “In terms of investing in the people in our community and the evidenced-based practice of making strong early childhood investments, it is a win.”
Who should be covered?
Like the FMLA, all the counties offering paid leave provide equal benefits to both parents.
Buncombe Commissioner Beach-Ferrara says this is important because “family structures vary — some families have a single parent; some a mom and dad; some two moms (like my family); and some two dads. In families where there are two parents, it’s so important for both to have the time to bond with their newborn or adopted child.”
Other county commissioners felt less positively about this aspect of the policy.
In 2017, before Mecklenburg County voted to adopt a paid parental leave policy, Mecklenburg Commissioner Bill James voiced concerns, saying fathers do not manage the parenting responsibilities the way mothers do, WSOC-TV reported.
The next year, after 22 years in office, James was defeated by Susan Rodriguez-McDowell.
“Any public or private benefit can be abused by bad actors; however, that does not mean that we should not offer the benefit,” Rodriguez-McDowell said. “We value families and want them to be strong.”
Some Buncombe County commissioners voiced caution before they knew the cost of paid parental leave for their county.
During discussion about the vote, Commissioner Robert Pressley said he would rather start with a more conservative period of leave, study its effects, and then increase it later if it was financially viable. Multiple Buncombe County commissioners expressed how much more difficult it is to revoke benefits than add them.
“Doing six (weeks of family leave), eight (weeks of parental leave) probably ain’t what it needs to be,” Pressley said, “but I think it’s a good starting point.”
Commissioners who favor the policy have reason to be optimistic. A 2014 report conducted by President Barack Obama’s Council of Economic Advisers found parental leave did not have a negative impact on employers.
“A survey of 253 employers affected by California’s paid family leave initiative found that the vast majority — more than 90% — reported no noticeable or a positive effect on profitability, turnover and morale,” the report says.
“When we are well cared for, it enables us as county workers to better care for the community members we serve,” Tallman, the Buncombe nutritionist, said.
Despite the benefits some report, paid parental leave remains relatively rare. According to a U.S. Department of Labor report on employee benefits, 19% of workers in America have paid parental leave, and the number is even lower — 15% — in the South Atlantic region.
An informal system
The 93 counties in North Carolina that do not offer paid parental leave offer 12 weeks of unpaid leave under the FMLA, in some cases supplemented by unofficial workarounds.
The 2014 Obama administration report found more than three times as many people reported being able to take some form of paid leave as were actually covered by a formal parental leave policy.
“The gap between workers’ and employers’ reports suggests that informal arrangements with managers and the use of other forms of leave, like paid vacation, may currently be playing an important role,” the report said.
In 2016, during Durham’s public comment period on the proposed paid parental leave policy, Jeannine Sato, a member of Moms Rising and mother of two, said these kinds of informal arrangements are insufficient. During her first pregnancy, Sato was denied FMLA leave and used paid sick time to take six weeks off, she told commissioners.
Sato left that employer after the experience, and by the time her second child was born, she had paid parental leave through another employer and was able to stay home with her child for 12 weeks, she said at the public hearing.
“Still far less than the average internationally for industrialized nations,” Sato said, “but a better experience nonetheless. And I feel like that made a huge difference in my life.”