Family Matters

Newborn baby with black hair

Family Matters

Tennessee state employees are likely to receive paid parental leave in next year’s budget. Will the private sector follow?

by jesse fox mayshark • March 16, 2023
Newborn baby with black hair

After a key committee vote this week, Tennessee state employees appear likely to have a new benefit by the time the Legislature completes its session: 12 weeks of paid leave for parents of a newborn or newly adopted child.

Some states have employee-funded paid leave systems for all workers.

Advocates for family leave hope the policy — proposed and supported by Gov. Bill Lee — is a step toward the adoption of even broader benefits across the state, in both the public and private sectors.

“The research is showing that the more and more this has been done, employers are reporting increased employee morale and productivity, and not really a large cost,” said Dawn Schluckebier, advocacy and government relations director for ThinkTennessee.

The nonpartisan policy group worked with another nonprofit, A Better Balance, on a research brief in support of Lee’s proposal for state workers. A Better Balance is a national organization that advocates for “transforming the American workplace into one that promotes gender equality and no longer undervalues the important labor of caregiving.”

Feroza Freeland, policy manager of A Better Balance’s Southern office, said bipartisan support for family leave has grown across the country, including among some of Tennessee’s neighbors.

“Where we are really seeing a lot of progress in our neighboring Southern states is in the public sector,” said Freeland, in a joint Zoom interview with Think Tennessee representatives. “Currently, Georgia, North Carolina and South Carolina all offer some form of paid parental leave for their state employees. Georgia also includes teachers.”

She noted that Knox County recently added eight weeks of parental leave for county employees, although it does not apply to the Sheriff’s Office or school employees.

Lee’s proposal would allow 12 weeks paid time for any state employee who becomes a parent, during the first year of having or adopting a child. The weeks would not have to be taken consecutively. The leave would not count against normal sick leave or vacation time, which is what many new parents rely on now. (At least, those with jobs that provide any leave at all.)

It received a warm reception on Tuesday at the state Senate’s State and Local Government Committee. 

“It’s a very significant improvement in the benefits to our employees,” state Sen. Ken Yager, R-Kingston, said during Tuesday’s committee meeting, citing his own parenting experience. “It’s been a few years, but I remember when our two children were young, how hard it was when they were first born to get the time off that we needed.”

The committee approved the bill unanimously.

The policy groups’ research brief says that data has shown minimal financial impact from providing family leave. Often, offices can redistribute work internally or adjust schedules to cover for somebody who is off. Knox County estimated that the impact of its new benefit on the county budget would be about $350,000 a year — a tiny percentage of its payroll. 

Freeland said A Better Balance hopes to see the benefit expanded, either at state or local levels, to include school employees, local governments and public universities.

More broadly, she has been working for several years with state Rep. Gloria Johnson, D-Knoxville, on a bill that would create a statewide paid leave system similar to those that have been adopted in 13 states and Washington, D.C.

It would create a fund fueled by a small payroll deduction from workers, like unemployment or Social Security. The fund would then provide paid family leave for not only a new child but also family crises like illnesses and deaths.

“I know that if the state has to pay it, or if business has to pay it, then it's not gonna happen,“ Johnson told Compass about the bill in a prior interview. “This actually makes small businesses competitive [with bigger ones] who can sometimes offer paid leave.”

Freeland said, “This is really a vision for what this could look like in a comprehensive way for Tennessee workers, that actually does not burden employers.”

Johnson’s bill would not create an unlimited benefit. It would allow for 12 weeks of pay at 80 percent of the employee’s average weekly wage, up to a maximum of $1,000 a week. It is up for committee hearings next week in the state House and Senate. But with two Democratic sponsors — Sen. Charlane Oliver of Nashville is carrying it in the Senate — its odds are longer than the governor’s bill.