City considers paid leave for expecting moms

By Martin Kidston

Members of the Missoula City Council on Wednesday directed staff to develop a new employee policy that, if adopted, could eventually allow new parents to take up to 12 weeks of paid leave when their children are born or adopted.

As envisioned, however, the first phase of the policy would likely create a six-week leave bank for pregnant women. Fathers would have to wait for the effort’s second phase, which would expand the policy to all new parents after the city resolved the financial implications.

“We need to acknowledge there is no short-term state disability in Montana,” said Ward 3 council member Gwen Jones. “That’s actually a strong reason why this has to come from the bottom up, because it’s not going to come from the top down. It’s very hard to go from income to zero income when you’re whole family is in transition.”

Steve Johnson, director of the city’s Central Services, said guidelines set by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission require an employer to carefully weigh medical conditions related to pregnancy against leave allowed for the birth of a child.

Johnson said the proposal’s first phase would establish a six-week pregnancy bank for women, retroactive to July 1. The second phase would expand that in 2017 from maternal leave to parental leave, making it available to all new parents working for the city.

“We’d also propose to estimate a budget for that purpose,” Johnson said. “We’d have a chance to discuss that during the Fiscal Year 2018 budget preparation and make sure the numbers look good.”

If the numbers did look good, Johnson said, the third phase would expand the program from six weeks to 12 weeks.

Ward 6 council member Emily Bentley attempted to bring the proposal forward during the last budgeting session. The council balked at the cost, prompting her to propose a phased approach that begins with paid pregnancy leave.

“The reason why the six weeks paid is so important is, a lot of times women who are pregnant have to take a lot of time off and use all their sick days while they’re pregnant,” Bentley said. “After the baby is born, after you get back to work, if a baby gets sick, you have to take the time off. It’s very serious.”

In March, Missoula County adopted its own parental leave program, allowing both moms and dads six weeks of paid time off after the birth or adoption of a child. The program was added to the county’s benefits package this summer.

Also this year, the Equal Pay for Equal Work Task Force created by Gov. Steve Bullock explored a statewide paid leave program. The task force believes the program could close the gender wage gap at a minimum cost to employees and employers.

The city could consider expending paid leave to employees caring for ailing loved ones and aging parents at a future date. The cost of the program, which hasn’t been detailed, remains a concern to some council members.

“I would like, as part of this instigation, to see if there’s an insurance-based option that could eventually help in this cobbling-together approach,” said Ward 4 council member John DiBari. “There might be a way that folks who are planning to adopt or get pregnant to purchase additional insurance that would provide coverage for them in a way they wouldn’t lose out on their salary.”

Contact reporter Martin Kidston at info@missoulacurrent.com