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County to add paid parental leave for employees, but will it be enough?

Monday, May 2, 2022 by Seth Smalley

Tomorrow, the Travis County Commissioners Court will take action on a paid parental leave policy for all county workers, but with multiple policies still to choose from, the magnitude and impact of how they decide remains uncertain.

While county staff will be presenting a menu of possibilities to the court, with varying lengths of benefit, eligibility requirements and costs, they are slated to recommend the six-week option of paid parental leave that is “consistent with market conditions,” according to a publicly available PowerPoint presentation on the matter. (Commissioners directed county staff to take a look at the topic in February.)

An alternate resolution on the same issue, brought forward by County Judge Andy Brown, proposes eight weeks of PPL instead of six and shortens the eligibility requirement from 12 months of employment with the county down to six.

“I lived through what it means to have a newborn at home and just how absolutely exhausting and time-consuming and important and joyful that period of time is,” Stephanie Gharakhanian, a county employee who has been advocating for parental leave, told the Austin Monitor. “I’ve also met other employees who had to leave the county because they just couldn’t make things work.”

Gharakhanian has one child and is considering another. She has been with the county for about six months and previously worked with a nonprofit that offered its employees paid parental leave.

“I honestly don’t know how my family would have managed if we were going without a paycheck while I was out on leave and we were still paying rent or paying our mortgage or student loans,” Gharakhanian said. “I’ve met people who had to take out really predatory title loans around the time that they were out of work (to take care of a newborn), because they still have to pay their bills.”

The city of Houston has already implemented a policy granting up to 12 weeks of paid leave “for the birth, adoption or foster placement of a child,” and Harris County – which represents a substantially more conservative constituency than Travis County – is phasing in a 12-week policy by 2023 (which started with eight weeks in 2021). The Harris County policy offers the benefits after just six months of employment, while the draft policy for Travis County seems to align more with Austin’s nearly decade-old policy, making the benefits available after 12 months of continuous employment, consistent with federal Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) requirements. (Austin’s six-week paid parental leave policy has been in place since 2013, though that time period might soon be extended by a City Council resolution being proposed this Thursday.)

According to data analyzed by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, the U.S. was the only country, out of 41 studied, that lacked parental leave. Even the 12-week leave policies in Houston and Harris County appear scant compared to the nearly 70 percent of countries studied that enjoy 20 weeks or higher.

Bob Libal, a former candidate for county commissioner, noted on Twitter that the absence of such a policy in Travis County is a “head-scratcher.” Another commenter, whose profile indicated he was a Houston firefighter, expressed shock that Houston had implemented a 12-week policy before Travis County.

Photo made available through a Creative Commons license.

Editor’s Note: Andy Brown is on the board of the Capital of Texas Media Foundation, the parent nonprofit of the Austin Monitor.

The Austin Monitor’s work is made possible by donations from the community. Though our reporting covers donors from time to time, we are careful to keep business and editorial efforts separate while maintaining transparency. A complete list of donors is available here, and our code of ethics is explained here.


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