Law opens leave bank to new moms

Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - NORTHWEST ARKANSAS - JOHN MORITZ

With Gov. Asa Hutchin­son’s sig­na­ture Thurs­day, women work­ing for state agen­cies were made el­i­gi­ble for four weeks of paid ma­ter­nity leave.

Flanked by ex­pec­tant moth­ers and the spon­sors of Se­nate Bill 125, Hutchin­son signed what is now Act 182, which al­lows new moth­ers to dip into a pool of un­used sick leave. It takes ef­fect im­me­di­ately.

The pool, the Cat­a­strophic Sick Leave Bank, will be open to em­ploy­ees in all state agen­cies, and is made up of un­used sick and leave time do­nated by other em­ploy­ees. It also is open to em­ploy­ees upon re­quest for med­i­cal emer­gen­cies.

Pre­vi­ously, par­tic­i­pat­ing agen­cies op­er­ated their own pools, which were com­bined into a sin­gle pool with a bal­ance of more than 1.5 mil­lion hours as of Thurs­day, ac­cord­ing to a Depart­ment of Fi­nance and Ad­min­is­tra­tion spokesman.

Act 182 re­quires all state agen­cies to par­tic­i­pate in the new pool, and al­lows other gov­ern­men­tal en­ti­ties such as the Gen­eral Assem­bly, High­way and Trans­porta­tion Depart­ment, courts and higher-ed­u­ca­tion in­sti­tu­tions to opt in, or cre­ate their own banks.

“We fully stepped up to the plate and did some­thing that should have been done years ago,” said Rep. DeAnn Vaught, R-Ho­ra­tio, the House spon­sor of the bill. The Se­nate spon­sor was Sen. Missy Irvin, R-Moun­tain View.

There are no pro­jected di­rect costs to of­fer­ing ma­ter­nity leave through the bank be­cause the do­nated hours are al­ready cal­cu­lated into the state bud­get, ac­cord­ing to fi­nance spokesman Jake Bleed.

In each of the past two years, more than 200 births were claimed on state in­sur­ance, ac­cord­ing to the depart­ment. One ac­count­ing sys­tem cov­er­ing most state agen­cies recorded 8,357 women be­tween the ages of 18 and 45 work­ing for the state.

Paid ma­ter­nity leave had been avail­able to some women work­ing for the state be­fore Thurs­day. Un­der a pre­vi­ous shared-leave pro­gram, work­ers in cer­tain agen­cies could do­nate un­used leave di­rectly to a co-worker. Act 182 does away with that pro­gram.

Ma­ter­nity leave for state em­ploy­ees is treated as any other leave for sick­ness or dis­abil­ity, mean­ing women must use up all of their ac­crued paid leave be­fore go­ing on un­paid ma­ter­nity leave. How­ever, Act 182 al­lows women to use do­nated leave from the bank be­fore us­ing their own ac­crued leave.

Par­ents are el­i­gi­ble for 12 weeks of un­paid leave un­der the fed­eral Fam­ily and Med­i­cal Leave Act of 1993, signed by Pres­i­dent Bill Clin­ton, the for­mer Ar­kan­sas gov­er­nor.

A woman would be el­i­gi­ble to re­ceive do­nated ma­ter­nity leave after she has worked for the state for a year, a pub­lic school dis­trict or col­lege for two years, or a com­bi­na­tion of state and pub­lic ed­u­ca­tion work to­tal­ing a year.

“It shows that Ar­kan­sas is set­ting an ex­am­ple,” Hutchin­son said. “This is im­por­tant for state gov­ern­ment and our re­ten­tion of em­ploy­ees, but also to make sure that we show the re­spect to those moth­ers that are try­ing to bal­ance work­force obli­ga­tions but also with the early days of child­hood.”

When she had her first child while on state pay­roll in 2014, Meg Mi­ravel, a spokesman for the Depart­ment of Health, said she took off for eight weeks. Now with her sec­ond child due in July, Mi­ravel stood be­hind the gov­er­nor, and said af­ter­ward that she hoped to take two more weeks with her baby.

“Ob­vi­ously, be­ing from the Health Depart­ment, I’m a big pro­po­nent of breast-feed­ing,” Mi­ravel said. “It’s go­ing to make a huge dif­fer­ence. … It takes the pres­sure off wor­ry­ing about the fi­nan­cial sit­u­a­tion.”

Democrats who have made ef­forts re­gard­ing paid ma­ter­nity leave ap­plauded the new law.

“I knew this day was com­ing, but just see­ing it hap­pen I’m ac­tu­ally more ex­cited than I thought I was gonna be,” said Rep. Clarke Tucker, D-Lit­tle Rock. “I think this is a great pol­icy. I’d like to see us do more.”

Tucker, a fa­ther of two, filed leg­is­la­tion of­fer­ing six weeks of paid ma­ter­nity leave to state em­ploy­ees.

A bill will be filed later this ses­sion of­fer­ing tax in­cen­tives to pri­vate em­ploy­ers for of­fer­ing paid ma­ter­nity leave, said Rep. Greg Led­ing, D-Fayetteville. Led­ing sup­ported an un­suc­cess­ful bill in 2013 on paid ma­ter­nity leave for state work­ers.

Three states guar­an­tee paid ma­ter­nity leave for all pub­lic and pri­vate em­ploy­ees: Cal­i­for­nia, New Jersey and Rhode Is­land. New York will be­gin of­fer­ing the ben­e­fit next year.

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