Inside County Government

Commissioners want Mecklenburg County to consider paid maternity leave for employees

Mecklenburg County commissioner Pat Cotham
Mecklenburg County commissioner Pat Cotham

Last year, it was like a game of follow the leader: Facebook, Netflix and Microsoft all gave their employees paid time off to bond with their newborns.

Two commissioners wonder if Mecklenburg County could be next.

In a budget policy meeting this week, commissioner Pat Cotham asked how female county employees felt about getting no paid maternity leave. And Chairman Trevor Fuller asked county staff to determine how much it would cost to offer new parents paid time off.

The county complies with the federal Family and Medical Leave Act, which entitles employees to 12 weeks of unpaid leave for medical and family reasons, including childbirth. In Mecklenburg, workers who want pay must use accrued sick or vacation time.

If new parents need more time off, they can use short-term disability, available 25 days after the baby’s birth. It pays 60 percent of their salaries while they’re away.

“Women who are pregnant, do they think this is a good deal?” Cotham asked. “Are they happy or not?”

It depends on how much sick and vacation time they have stored, County Manager Dena Diorio said. “Usually, once you know you’re pregnant, you take steps to make sure you accrue enough time to take all that time with pay.”

Mecklenburg’s policies are not unique in North Carolina. The city of Charlotte and Wake, Buncombe, Union, Cabarrus and Gaston counties don’t offer paid leave to new parents but let employees use short-term disability, sick days or vacation time.

Allan Fryer, director of the Workers’ Rights Project for the liberal N.C. Justice Center, said for nearly a decade the group has urged state lawmakers to add paid leave to its FMLA practices. If the effort gains momentum, he said, the organization would consider advocating the same for counties.

“Imagine having to go back to work after a week or less (after having a baby),” Fryer said. “It’s a scandal. In America, it’s a scandal.”

California, New Jersey and Rhode Island are the only states to offer paid FMLA for employees, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Overall, the U.S. is one of 12 countries worldwide that do not require paid maternity leave for employees, according to a 2014 report from the Institute for Women’s Policy Research.

At least in the private sector, there are signs of change among high-profile employers. Take Facebook, which expanded its leave policy to four months for full-time employees, and Netflix, which gives new parents up to 12 months of paid leave.

But there’s a lot Mecklenburg County has to consider before making a change, such as how to treat couples who adopt and how to foot new costs, Diorio said Thursday.

“We’d be paying for people to take time off that’s not budgeted (now),” she said. “This is uncharted territory because we haven’t looked at this before.”