Tennessee may soon have one of the most generous paid family leave policies in the country. Gov. Bill Lee made an executive order on Tuesday, offering new parents or an employee needing to care for a sick relative up to three months off with pay.
Like most employers, the state has to give people time off under the Family and Medical Leave Act. But it doesn’t have to pay them while they’re gone, so most expectant mothers rely on saved-up sick time and vacation.
That’s what Sarah Tanksley, a spokesperson for TennCare, did when she was gave birth to twins in 2014.
“Throughout my pregnancy, I was always very aware of not taking any time off because I didn’t want to use it before I actually needed it,” she says.
She spent nearly three months at home from work, but half of it ended up being unpaid. She notes that parents often have to go without pay just as they’re incurring new costs for hospital bills, baby formula and daycare.
But Lee cites a different reason for extending paid leave: He says it’ll keep the state competitive in a tight job market.
“This is an impactful investment in the state workforce and will allow us to continue to attract and retain the best workforce possible,” he said in a statement.
The new policy takes effect March 1. By the administration’s math, the move won’t require more spending. That’s because state departments already keep any money saved when employees take unpaid time off.
State Sen. Sara Kyle, D-Memphis, has made similar proposals in years past only to be shot down in the legislature. She applauds the paid leave but says the state should also force private employers to do the same, as several other states have done.
“If paid family leave is the right thing to do for thousands of state employees, it’s even better that we do it for the millions of private sector workers in Tennessee who deserve the same opportunity to bond with a new child and care for their sick relatives without going broke,” she said.
According to the National Partnership for Women & Families, California, New Jersey, Rhode Island, New York, Washington, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Oregon and the District of Columbia have paid family leave laws that also put a mandate on private sector employers.