Lee: Tennessee to offer state workers 12 weeks paid family leave

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In this July 9, 2019, file photo Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee speaks during a groundbreaking ceremony for the new soccer club stadium in East Ridge, Tenn. Tennessee would become the first state in the nation to receive its Medicaid funding in a lump sum under a proposal seeking to drastically overhaul the program that provides […]

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Tennessee Governor Bill Lee signed an executive order requiring paid family leave for all state employees.

““Strong families make for strong communities, and I am proud that Tennessee will lead the nation in supporting our employees,” Lee said. “This is an impactful investment in the state workforce and will allow us to continue to attract and retain the best workforce possible.”

The plan, which takes effect March 1, would apply initially to all full-time executive branch employees with at least a year of service.

Leave would be granted for such events as the birth of a child, adoption or foster care, care of a sick family member, active military duty of a family member, or personal health conditions that render employees unable to do their job.

The executive order that Lee signed will make about 38,000 employees initially eligible for leave at 100% of the employee’s regular salary. State lawmakers are seeking to extend the protection for thousands of additional state workers.

“It’s one of the most cost-effective investments in the families of our state employees in recent history,” the Republican governor said at a news conference.

Eight states, plus Washington, D.C., have or will soon implement paid family leave laws that also extend to private industry. Some segments of the public sector are covered among those states and the pay rates vary state-by-state, said Jessica Mason, senior policy analyst for the National Partnership for Women and Families. A number of states also have enacted parental leave specifically for state workers, Mason added.

“This (Tennessee) policy is innovative or groundbreaking in certain respects by starting with the comprehensive coverage and the governor taking the lead on that, and by having the 100% pay scale,” Mason said.

About 80% of U.S. workers in the private sector still lack access to paid family leave.

Last month, Congress passed a bill giving the country’s 2.1 million government employees 12 weeks of paid parental leave as part of a defense bill President Donald Trump later signed into law. Tennessee’s benefits expand beyond what the federal government is offering its employees.

Currently, employees in Tennessee who need paid time off under the federal Family Medical Leave Act normally use whatever earned time they have, such as vacation or sick days, said state Department of Human Resources Commissioner Juan Williams.

And any state employees who take unpaid leave allowed under the Family Medical Leave Act now have that portion of their salaries withheld and the money reverts to agencies in the form of savings.

Lee’s administration said the new benefits will help reduce turnover rates for state employees and assist the state in saving on health care costs. He also said it would not cost anything, but later officials clarified that there would be some cost.

Those savings, which totaled about $900,000 last budget year and $3.5 million the year before, would be lost with the executive order, Williams said.

Lee and lawmakers in the GOP-led statehouse stressed that the new family leave requirement won’t be placed on private employers or local governments.

“Whether private business does this or not is entirely up to them, because we are a very business friendly state,” said Republican House Majority Leader William Lamberth.

The action was applauded by lawmakers.

“Paid family leave for state employees builds upon our recent efforts creating safe, nurturing environments for our children, while strengthening bonds between parents and their newly adopted or newborn sons and daughters, said House Majority Leader William Lambert. “This important benefit levels the playing field for our state departments, agencies, and the General Assembly so we can attract and retain the best and brightest employees.”

“Tennessee is proud to be a pro-family state, and this initiative strengthens our commitment to families and is a step in the right direction. We have all experienced scenarios where we have had to choose between work and family. This initiative ensures our state employees will no longer have to make that difficult choice,” added Rep. Esther Helton.

Democratic lawmakers in Tennessee, meanwhile, have previously pushed for paid family leave that includes private industry workers.

“If paid family leave is the right thing to do for thousands of state employees, it’s even better that we do it for the millions of private sector workers in Tennessee who deserve the same opportunity to bond with a new child and care for their sick relatives without going broke,” said Democratic Sen. Sara Kyle, one of the previous bill sponsors.

The new policy will take effect on March 1.

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