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Springfield Debates Paid Parental Leave For City Employees

Springfield Municipal Center West
Mary Hansen
NPR Illinois

When Tanner Fry’s youngest son was born two years ago, Fry appreciated the time he got to spend with the baby, so much that the middle-of-the-night diaper changes didn’t bother him.

“To be able to have the luxury to get up at 2 a.m., not having to worry about being up at 5 a.m. and go to work, made it that much easier to handle,” said the 42-year-old city employee. Fry works on a crew that resurfaces roads and helps fix water main breaks for City, Water Light and Power.

City employees can take up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave under the federal Family Medical Leave Act after the birth or adoption of a child, and use as much accrued sick or vacation time as they have to get paid during that time.

“I exhausted almost every piece of time I had on the books, so I could spend that first four or five weeks with him,” Fry said. “And that's just detrimental throughout the course of the year.”

It meant he didn’t have days to take off if his kids got sick or he needed to go to the doctor himself. But options for new parents could change under a proposal now before the Springfield City Council. If approved, the city would offer four weeks of paid leave to all employees after the birth or adoption of a child.

“The importance of having engaged parents at that very new stage cannot be underestimated,” Ward 8 Ald. Erin Conley told the city council last week. “We are talking about an investment in our employees who are citizens of our city.”

Conley was shocked to find out last year the city didn’t offer paid parental leave, and decided to propose a leave policy to cover all city employees.

While growing more popular, paid maternity and paternity time is still uncommon in the United States, the only country in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development that does not have a nationwide requirement for maternity leave and one of seven that doesn’t require the benefit for fathers.

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that one in five workers in the private sector gets the benefit, while slightly more local government employees – one in four – do. Both of those portions have increased by 10 percentage points in the last decade.

The State of Illinois recently increased its paid parental leave benefit for employees to 10 weeks. However, Springfield officials said an informal review of policies for peer cities – Bloomington, Peoria, and Decatur – show none of them offer it.

But Conley said the capital city should be a leader. She introduced the idea during city budget discussions in February.

“I wanted to make sure that we had dedicated funding for this,” Conely told NPR Illinois. “So it wouldn't be viewed as an unfunded mandate or an extra mandate.”

Conley and Ward 2 Ald. Shawn Gregory, Ward 5 Ald. Andrew Proctor, Ward 6 Ald. Kristin DiCenso, Ward 9 Ald. Jim Donelan and State Sen. Doris Turner, who was at her last meeting serving as Ward 3’s representative, voted in favor of adding $300,000 to the $130-million spending plan to cover a potential increase in overtime costs.

Now up for approval is the actual change to the city code that would offer employees the benefit. But debate around whether or not the city should cover paid leave continues.

“If we had tons of money, and the future looked bright, I would say ‘Let's go for it,’” said Ward 10 Ald. Ralph Hanauer last week. He, Ward 1 Ald. Chuck Redpath, Ward 4 Ald. John Fulgenzi and Ward 7 Ald. Joe McMenamin voted down the allocation of money for the proposal.

Springfield budget officials forecast the city having to deplete its reserves over the next few years to combat dwindling revenues and rising costs.

Citing these budget concerns, the city council cut more than a million dollars from the fire department’s budget this year. The council also attempted to curtail overtime costs, which the fire chief says have increased in part because more firefighters are becoming parents and taking time off.

“We are responsible for the fiscal operations of this city,” Hanauer said. “And this [paid parental leave] is just going to put more water in the boat quicker. And I just can't support this at this time.”

Last year 35 employees took parental leave, all using accrued time off, according to Human Resources Director Jim Kuizin and Budget Director Bill McCarty. Female employees took an average of 65 days and male 33 days. Both McCarty and Kuizin said it’s difficult to project the cost of the change in policy and its effects on city services.

But they argued the change could mean employees would be entitled to payout for vacation or sick time they would have otherwise used for parental leave, potentially costing between $170,000 and $220,000.

“There is a true cost of giving more benefit time either in the form of lost productivity the taxpayers were getting before or in end of employment pay outs for unused benefit time,” McCarty said.

Conley still argues the benefits to city employees far outweigh the cost.

"This one is not a financial issue as much as I think it's being portrayed," Conley said. "And it absolutely is a family issue that I think we need to be advocating for."

She paid parental leave could decrease turnover and make city jobs more competitive. Studies of leave policies show mothers are more likely to return to work after having kids, and there are better health outcomes for both moms and babies.

Springfield Mayor Jim Langfelder said he supports four weeks paid leave for moms, but questions the need to offer the same amount of time to dads.

“If you're the mother of the child with maternity leave, I always felt that should be more than the paternity leave,” he said.

The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Council 31, which represents 233 city employees, responded to the mayor’s stance saying “under no circumstances” should the policy be applied differently across genders.

Fry – the Springfield employee who is represented by AFSCME – agreed.

“It's not, for lack of a better term, I'll use the word fair that all this falls on the mom’s plate,” he said.

He and his wife are expecting their third child in September. He said he can’t imagine going back to work just a few days after coming home from the hospital, leaving her at home with an infant, toddler and six-year-old.

“Trying to take care of the baby and do all these things, while she's recovering from everything her body just went through and with all the emotions that go in with that, I just can't imagine how difficult that would be,” Fry said.

Fry said he plans to take off a few weeks when the baby arrives, but getting four weeks of paid leave would give him peace of mind.

The city council is expected to vote on the policy Tuesday night.

Mary Hansen is a former NPR Illinois reporter.
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