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Council debates path forward on paid family leave for emergency services employees

Tuesday, December 14, 2021 by Kali Bramble

City Council weighed the implications of significantly expanding benefits for emergency services employees this past Thursday in a resolution that calls for a new family leave policy for the city’s EMS, police, and fire departments.

The resolution, sponsored by Council Member Ann Kitchen, directs city staff to develop plans for a program providing adequate paid leave for new parents in emergency services departments and to return with cost estimates within 30 days. The resolution passed unanimously, with Mayor Steve Adler off the dais and Mayor Pro Tem Natasha Harper-Madison abstaining.

“I think parental leave is a necessity for all of our employees, and I don’t think we should be negotiating it,” Kitchen said at Council’s work session last Tuesday. “Regardless of the fiscal implications, I think this benefit is fundamental.”

Currently, sworn employees across the three public safety departments receive the 12 weeks of unpaid leave mandated by the federal Family and Medical Leave Act, but receive no additional compensation from the city. Kitchen noted that this stands in contrast to the city’s policy toward civilian employees, who receive six weeks of paid family leave.

The proposal comes at a critical time for the city’s EMS department, which is seeing record staffing shortages and rates of employee dissatisfaction. Further complicating things is a hole in leadership, with former EMS Chief Ernesto Rodriguez retiring after 40 years of EMS service (he was hired by the city in 2006). Under these precarious circumstances, the EMS union has begun negotiations with the city for higher wages, hazard pay and improved benefits upon renewal of its contract in 2022.

Despite a consensus on updating family leave benefits, Council disagreed over the best approach. Adler wondered whether the policy may be best left to labor negotiations, noting that “if it happens outside of labor negotiations, then we may be talking about a substantial increase to the police and public safety budget from the General Fund.”

Council Member Alison Alter echoed these concerns, suggesting that the language of the resolution implied benefits of an overly ambitious scale. Particularly contentious was the resolution’s direction to include foster parents, adoptive parents and fathers among those awarded leave. 

“In a perfect world I would want everyone to have parental leave,” Alter said, “but we’ve received information suggesting the total cost of this could be up to $2 million, which is a whole lot more than providing pregnancy leave to a handful of our staff.”

Still, Kitchen remained firm that family leave be a city-mandated policy as a matter of principle. “I believe these benefits are a basic human right,” Kitchen said at last Tuesday’s work session. “I’m concerned that if this is kept in negotiations it may be something that A, our employees won’t receive, or B, is used to trade other things, which I think is not appropriate.”

Council will refrain from committing to a new family leave policy until the Office of the City Manager returns with several options and cost estimates sometime in January. Until then, leaders in the emergency services unions will continue chipping away at labor negotiations, hoping to secure more wins for their cohort.

Photo made available through a Creative Commons license. This story has been changed since publication to clarify Rodriguez was hired by the city in 2006.

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