Monday, July 22, 2024

Incoming Louisiana legislative leaders undecided on paid parental leave for state workers

by BIZ Magazine

By Julie O’Donoghue, Louisiana Illuminator

Incoming leaders of the Louisiana Legislature aren’t sure yet whether they will get behind a paid parental leave policy for state workers Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards is putting in place during his final days in office

“I haven’t talked to enough [Senate] members to know if there is any opposition,” said Sen. Cameron Henry, a Metairie Republican who is expected to become the chamber’s president in January. “I don’t think there is a rush to do away with it.”

Rep. Phillip DeVillier, expected to be elected House Speaker, was a bit more cautious. He wants to know how much the policy would cost the state before endorsing it, he said. If it is too expensive, it could further exacerbate a state budget shortfall expected in 2025, he added.

“We need to look at the cost and try to figure out how do we pay for it,” said DeVillier, a Republican from Eunice. 

Ultimately, the decision about whether to reverse Edwards’ parental leave policy isn’t up to lawmakers. Gov.-elect Jeff Landry and the state Civil Service Commission will share that responsibility after Landry takes office Jan. 8. 

Landry hasn’t committed to keeping paid parental leave entirely in place and said last week he wants legislative leaders to weigh in on the cost of the benefit before he makes up his mind. 

Under Edwards’ plan, paid parental leave for approximately 70,000 state employees would become available starting Jan. 1, a week before Landry takes office. 

The policy entitles state workers to six weeks of time off at full-pay in the event of a family birth, adoption or foster placement. All qualifying employees would be offered the benefit, regardless of gender. 

Currently, there is no uniform parental leave policy for state employees, according to a Louisiana Legislative Auditor’s report from 2019, but many agencies offer unpaid leave or allow new parents to use accrued vacation time and sick days to cover their time off. 

Edwards is bringing paid parental leave to state employees in two, simultaneous waves.

First, he is covering more than 32,000 unclassified state government employees through a gubernatorial executive order that only Landry, as the new governor, will be able to lift.

Second, the state Civil Service Commission, whose members were mostly appointed by Edwards, granted the benefit to 39,000 classified workers through a new rule it adopted in September.

The two-pronged approach means Landry could easily scrap paid parental leave for unclassified workers, but he would have to convince the Civil Service Commission to get rid of it for classified employees.

Unclassified employees work on an at-will basis. They include political appointees and tend to hold higher-paying jobs. Classified employees are more rank-and-file workers, including those who don’t turn over as different different governors come and go. 

The governor appoints six of the seven civil service commissioners, though they have to come from a pool of candidates leaders of Louisiana’s private universities nominate. Only three slots will open up for Landry to fill before 2027, when he would have to run for governor again.

The budget impact of paid parental leave might also be difficult for Landry and state legislators to determine. The legislative auditor wasn’t able to determine how many state employees took parental leave on an annual basis when it investigated the topic four years ago.

The leave-tracking system most state agencies use only makes note of when people take advantage of family and medical leave in general. It doesn’t differentiate between leave for new parent reasons and other family or medical situations, according to the report.

The Civil Service Commission also found it difficult to estimate the exact cost of paid parental leave for classified employees, though it believes the expense to the state government will be minimal. 

“State Civil Service does not anticipate that proposed Rule 11.36 will have a significant financial impact on state government,” wrote Sherri Gregoire, the commission’s general counsel, in a fiscal impact report on paid parental leave published in May. “Positions for state classified employees are budgeted for a fiscal year, whether the employee is paid for work performed or as compensation for leave used.”

Gregoire went on to say a paid parental leave policy could help stabilize the state workforce and lead to fewer employees leaving.

“Should classified employees be eligible for paid parental leave, Louisiana state government would be better positioned to recruit and retain potential job applicants with a benefits package that supports work and life balance,” she wrote. If Edwards’ parental leave policy stays in place, state lawmakers will still have to make a decision about whether their own staff should get similar benefits.

The Louisiana Legislature’s employees are not among the 70,000 state workers that Edwards’ paid leave plan covers. The governor doesn’t have the power to extend the civil service rule or his executive order to workers in another branch of government. Only the legislature can approve that for its own workers.

DeVillier and Henry both said they are still thinking over whether their employees should receive paid parental leave.

DeVillier said House staff members have already raised the issue with him directly, though the cost of such a policy will be a factor in his final decision about the issue. Henry said he wants to hold off on talking about parental leave in detail until January, once legislators are sworn into office.

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