WICHITA, Kan. (KSNW) — As of Wednesday, the Sedgwick County Commission has adopted a parental leave policy for County employees. Eligible Sedgwick County employees can get eight weeks of paid leave after a birth, adoption, or placement of a foster child in their home.

Before the commission voted, the County had no parental leave policy. Parents could use their paid sick leave or vacation pay to cover some of the time off. If they wanted a longer time, they could use the Family and Medical Leave Act, which is unpaid but protects their jobs.

The County’s chief human resources officer, Sheena Schmutz, said adopting a parental leave policy could help the County improve staffing levels. She asked the commissioners to approve the eight weeks of paid leave.

“The struggle is real for working parents in Kansas,” she said. “This type of benefit will assist us in retaining and recruiting employees.”

The commissioners had several concerns before they voted.

Is there a cost?

Schmutz said there would be minimal financial cost to the County. But, a couple of the County commissioners did not agree with that.

“Granted, it’s not going to impact the budget, but it impacts our citizens, and that’s the ones that I’m interested in, is what does it do to the citizens,” Commissioner David Dennis said.

“That may mean increased overtime for some staff who are filling in if they’re hourly. It may mean more hours for salaried staff for shifting workload,” Lindsay Poe Rousseau, County CFO, said.

Dennis said that while eight weeks of paid leave might help the morale of the parent, it could hurt the morale of people having to do extra work or work overtime.

Commissioner Jim Howell estimated the cost could be $1 million a year for the County.

“Maybe I’m way off, but for us to provide a benefit where people can stay home and be paid and not provide services, there’s a cost to taxpayers one way or another. There has to be,” he said. “And I think it’s illogical to say there’s no cost. There is a cost.”

“What I’ve heard from departments who’ve been consulted on this is that there are plans to manage and continue to provide the level of service,” Rousseau said.

Would safety be jeopardized?

Several of the commissioners noted that parental leave would affect all County departments, but they were especially concerned about the ones associated with public safety.

Commissioner Ryan Baty asked if the Sedgwick County Sheriff’s Office, Fire Department, 911 and EMS were consulted.

“Do the leaders of those organizations, do they have any hesitancy with eight weeks?” he asked.

County Manager Tom Stolz said those departments continue to have staffing challenges, so they asked the department heads if they could tolerate an eight-week leave policy.

“It’s going to make a staffing issue that they have currently even more challenging, but all four of them support this policy,” Stolz said. “All four of them see the long-term benefit of this and are willing to shore it up on the short term to hopefully hire and retain more people.”

New parents

Two of the commissioners have new additions to their families. Baty’s wife gave birth to a son on Tuesday, and Commissioner Sarah Lopez gave birth to twins in January. Both Lopez and Baty chose to take part in County Commission meetings the day after the births.

But Lopez said she did not have that choice with her first children.

“When I had my first daughter, I went back to work within a week,” Lopez said. “When I had my second daughter, I quit my job because I didn’t want to go back to work within a week.”

She does not want County workers to have to make that kind of choice.

Baty said that while his wife can stay home with the baby, he knows that is an opportunity many new parents do not have.

“That is kind of entering into my logic as I consider this, is those people that don’t have that luxury that I have … those people that have to go back to work because they’ve got to put food on their table,” he said.

How many weeks should parents get?

All five commissioners spoke in favor of a parental leave policy, but they did not all agree on how many weeks parents should get.

Baty, Lopez, and the human resources director said eight weeks would send a message to employees.

“The message that the organization sends to the employee is that we care, we’re family-oriented, and we want you to have that time with your family so that you come back as a better employee for us,” Schmutz said.

“I think we have an opportunity here as one of the largest employers in this community to lead, to set a standard and to send a message that we are about pro-family,” Baty said. “That we believe in family, that we believe in that bonding time. We believe that bringing children into this world is an important thing and a good thing, and parents being able to stay home with those babies is equally important.”

Dennis said that while he supports parental leave, he thinks eight weeks is too generous.

“I would go with four weeks, and we can always go up in the future, next year, if we find that we really need to go to six weeks or eight weeks in the future, but if we start at eight weeks, we can’t go down,” he said.

Howell also agreed that eight weeks is too much.

“I don’t know that I want to see it start so high that we can’t roll it backwards, ’cause I think once we go high, it’s going to be hard to unwind this,” he said.

Howell suggested offering all parents two weeks to bond with a new child and adding four weeks of medical leave for the parent who gives birth.

He asked the commission to postpone Wednesday’s vote for up to two weeks to hear from the public. He also wanted to know what kind of parental leave other large employers offer their workers, like Textron and Spirit AeroSystems.

The vote

County Chairman Pete Meitzner wanted to find a compromise between four weeks and eight weeks, so he made a motion to go with six weeks of paid leave and revisit the issue at the end of 2024. Dennis seconded the motion.

But Lopez spoke against it.

“I don’t think six weeks is enough,” she said. “We are a board of men making decisions on parental leave that’s going to, at the end of the day, impact women more than it is the man. And I don’t know if anybody else has given birth, but I can tell you that there is a huge difference between six and eight weeks.”

She also said that parents who return to work too early may be distracted by worrying about the baby and not as productive as they usually would be.

She made a secondary motion to go with eight weeks of paid leave. Baty seconded it.

That is the motion the commissioners voted on.

“I want everyone to know I’m not against this proposal, OK, but I’m voting no,” Dennis said.

Lopez, Baty and Meitzner voted for the eight weeks. Howell was not at Wednesday’s meeting. He joined it remotely but had to leave the meeting before the vote.

The motion for eight weeks of paid leave passed 3 to 1.

A Sedgwick County spokesperson said it takes effect immediately.