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Utah lawmakers debate, fail to act on family leave bill

SALT LAKE CITY — Having a baby is not a vacation, nor is it a sickness.

That’s the message Lena Al-Rayess had for a group of legislators Thursday morning as she spoke in favor of HB156, a bill that would grant paid parental leave to state employees.

“As anyone who has children knows, as soon as you give birth to a child, it’s no vacation. You’re learning; you’re healing,” the 32-year-old Taylorsville mother said. “For me, I’m putting off having another child until I can either somehow get benefits at my current position or I can find another job, or I’ll move to another state.”

It’s not an idle threat.

Al-Rayess, who’s originally from California, said her friends back home were appalled when they learned that she had to use her sick and vacation pay to scrape up six weeks of leave when her son Owen, now 9 months old, was born.

“I love my job. I don’t want to leave it,” she said of her position as an admissions coordinator at the University of Utah’s School of Social Work. But “knowing there are options of not having to have that stress on my family” makes her seriously consider leaving the state.

Which is why she was so frustrated by Thursday’s hearing before the House Business and Labor Committee, where representatives seemed to obsess about costs rather than consider the long-term benefits for families.

Stephanie Pitcher found the morning’s meeting “horribly dissapointing” and said she's worried the bill may now be stuck in committee because of the financial questions.

“There was so much misunderstanding,” said Pitcher, director of the Utah Women’s Coalition, who tried to clarify for the committee that HB156 wasn’t creating a new problem but rather trying to “ease the economic burden for families.”

She pointed out that under the federal Family and Medical Leave Act, employees can already take up to 12 weeks of job-protected, unpaid time off for the birth or adoption of a baby, or a medical crisis for themselves or a family member.

What Rep. Elizabeth Weight’s bill would do is allow new moms and dads who work for the state to keep receiving their salary for six of those Family and Medical Leave Act weeks, enabling them to stay home and bond with their child, without worrying about finances.

But finances were all the committee wanted to talk about, and they peppered Weight, D-West Valley City, with questions regarding how to pay for hourly employees, how many employees the bill would cover, or whether employees should just use their sick and vacation pay to cover leave.

“The fiscal note is really squishy,” said Committee Chairman Rep. Jim Dunnigan, R-Taylorsville, who said after the hearing he had "even more questions.”

Even if Dunnigan gets those answers, the bill may not come back up in committee, he said, as a large number of bills still haven’t been heard, and there only three or four committee hearings left in the session.

The bill would apply to more than 56,000 people, including 18,000 state employees, 37,862 employees at the eight public colleges and universities, plus University Hospital staff and the 205 employees of the Utah State Board of Education.

Yet only 1,256 state employees took Family and Medical Leave Act leave for childbirth or adoption last year.

But what about a state employee like a snowplow driver, who’s paid hourly and needs time off to be home with a new baby? asked Rep. Mike Schultz, R-Hooper.

“We still need someone to fill those shoes, still have the cost associated with that, and it doesn’t look like it reflects that in the fiscal note,” he said.

"Reportedly it does," replied Weight.

The bill currently has a zero fiscal note, which seemed impossible to many of the legislators, who kept asking about where the extra money was going to come from to cover employees who take leave.

Weight reminded the committee that salaries are already a fixed cost and planned for in the budget. She also repeatedly referenced her conversations with fiscal analysts who surveyed state departments, divisions and agencies to ask them that very question.

Their response? No extra cost.

Why not? It’s because, as Pitcher explained, this isn’t a new situation. Employees take leave all the time, whether they’re out on vacation, taking a few paid sick days or a longer-term Family and Medical Leave Act reason.

Departments can either hire a temporary worker, shift the work to colleagues, delay projects or a combination of those. And most the departments reported they simply absorbed the work and figured it out without extra costs.

Because departments know their own needs so well, why not leave the issue of parental leave benefits up to the individual state agencies, rather than passing a sweeping new law? asked Rep. Jeremy Peterson, R-Ogden.

“There’s a way to get to where (Weight) wants to go,” he said, “but a blanket policy is not nimble enough. It’s the wrong tool to use to get that done.”

But before granting new benefits, the committee wanted to know what benefits already exist, and how employees pay for leave.

They rely on sick pay, accrued at four hours per pay period. Vacation or annual leave starts at four hours per pay period, then increases with seniority, explained Adam Sweet, from the state Office of Legislative Research and General Counsel.

After being employed a year (a prerequisite for taking the proposed paid leave) an employe would have about 13 sick days and 13 annual or vacation days.

“Do you think they should use some of their current sick leave for maternity leave?” Dunnigan asked.

“No,” Weight replied.

“State employees get five weeks right off the bat, that they accrue over a year’s time,” he continued.

“If they haven’t had to use any of it for illness,” Weight interjected.

“When we think of how our state employees create a stable, well-staffed responsive government, it makes sense economically for Utah to be one of those employers of choice and provide parental leave,” she added.

Because without being competitive, the state runs the risk of losing people like Al-Rayess and hundreds or thousands of women like her.

“I did what I had to do for my family,” she said. “There’s a huge disconnect between our reputation as a family-friendly state and our policies. I feel punished by society for not being a stay-at-home mom.”