Loudoun County supervisors, at the behest of Ron Meyer (R-Broad Run), voted Tuesday to include research on paid family leave for county employees into an ongoing classification and compensation study.
The board commissioned the study in 2016 as a way to determine the county’s standings in terms of employee salaries and benefits.
Meyer first asked the board to direct staff to study the issue apart from the classification and compensation study. However, Supervisor Matthew Letourneau (R-Dulles) offered an amendment, saying putting the study within an already working mechanism was the easiest and most efficient way to get the results.
“I don’t think this is just about data collection. I think it’s about policy options, and it may be true that we can get policy options ahead of time, but to what end if we’re not looking at the whole issue?” Letourneau said.
He added that paternal leave and parental leave for individuals who adopt should also be considered in the policy.
Loudoun County does not have a specific family leave policy for county employees. Currently, employees can take up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave under the Family Medical Leave Act, which allows for job protection upon a parent’s return to work.
To be able to continue collecting a paycheck while on leave, parents can use paid sick hours. After an elimination period, new parents may quality for short-term disability that allows them to collect 60 percent of their regular paychecks for about six to eight weeks.
A Times-Mirror report in April on the county and school system's family leave policies sparked community discussion on the issue.
Supervisors believe an updated family leave policy will help to retain and attract a high-quality workforce to Loudoun County.
Loudoun is regarded as one of the best places in the country to start a family, according to county staff, “yet our county policies can make it challenging for our own employees to start a family.”
“This is about making sure that we structure our leave policy to stop making people feel uncomfortable about having children [while] working in county government,” Meyer said. “Having children shouldn’t be considered being sick or having a disability.”
It’s a scenario that new parents, particularly mothers, face across the country. Many times, parents must leave their newborns – a crucial bonding time between infant and mother and father – before they’re ready because they’ve exhausted all of their sick and vacation time. Several national studies, including a recent one by U.S. Congressional Joint Economic Committee, found that access to paid family leave significantly increases the likelihood that workers will return to work rather than being forced to quit.
Vice Chairman Ralph Buona (R-Ashburn) said most of Loudoun’s surrounding counties’ family leave policies require the employee to exhaust their sick leave as well.
Loudoun County employees, he said, have unlimited sick leave accrual.
“You have to look at this holistically. Loudoun has the most liberal sick policy of any organization I have ever seen anywhere, public or private sector” Buona said. “You have unlimited accrual of sick leave in this county … And so just to say we’re going to pay out a benefit when somebody might be sitting on a year’s worth of sick leave is at a cost.”
Chairwoman Phyllis Randall (D-At Large) has first-hand experience in working as a county employee with the same family leave policy as Loudoun now operates under.
“It’s not a good policy,” Randall said. “Having a baby, you’re not sick. It shouldn’t be a sick leave issue. You’re not sick.”
She said there are other factors to consider beside the county’s unlimited sick leave accrual policy. New employees are likely to not have built up much sick leave and, unfortunately, there are times when babies are born ill and the parents must burn through their paid time off, the chairwoman said.
And, Randall added, when parents do return to work, they have no sick time available to take care of their child if they become ill.
“Little kids get sick all the time, and you have to take time off to take care of your child. And, you’ve already worked through all that sick time,” she said.