Florida joins 3 other states in adopting new, paid maternity leave for state workers

With a tight labor market and more than 7,000 vacancies in state government, Gov. Ron DeSantis and the Florida Cabinet did something this week that the state government has never done in agreeing to offer paid maternity leave to expectant mothers.

Under the proposal approved Tuesday during a nine-minute meeting via telephone, eligible state employees can receive paid maternity leave for up to seven weeks and parental leave for two weeks. For mothers, that amounts to combined family leave of nine weeks. For fathers and partners of the expectant mother, that gives two weeks of paid leave.

It is a substantial change from previous state policy that required state employees seeking leave for the birth or adoption of a child to be treated as if they were sick. Under that plan, state workers were required to use sick and annual leave or unpaid leave following the birth of a child.

With the change, Florida joins North Carolina, South Dakota and Texas that adopted paid parental leave policies this year, said Vicki Shabo, a senior fellow for gender equity, paid leave and care policy, and strategy at the New America Foundation, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank.

15 state have some form of paid leave

About 15 other states have some type of paid leave for state employees, she said, but only 13 states and the District of Columbia have adopted statewide paid family and medical leave programs — and Florida is not among them.

Because Florida will offer more weeks of family leave thanneighboring states, the governor boasted that “compared to other Southeastern states, this is the most robust paid leave policy for mothers following birth.”

“When I became Governor, I made it a priority to champion policies that support families and empower parents,” DeSantis said in a news release. “As a father of three, I know how instrumental those first weeks are for new parents and their children.”

Research shows that a paid family leave policy in state government “helps attract talent. It supports retention and so it makes sense for state governments that need to attract new workers,’’ Shabo said.

But, she added, of the four states to adopt new family leave policies this year, each has also adopted stricter abortion policies.

“It’s a talking point,’’ she said. “In states that have adopted widespread restrictions on abortion for all workers, to be able to say that they’re doing something family friendly, they provide paid leave for state workers.”

Who is eligible in Florida?

Eligible state employees include nearly 98,000 workers statewide in the career service, select exempt and senior management services, including the 67,000 state workers covered by a union contract. (There are another roughly 7,000 unfilled positions that are also covered by the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees contract, according to union officials.)

Under the current system, workers can take unpaid leave for 12 weeks under the federal Family and Medical Leave Act and six months under the state’s Family Supportive Work Program and be guaranteed the right to their position or a comparable position when they return to work, said Jeff Ivey, a spokesperson for the Florida Department of Management Services.

The new policy will take effect when the agency completes its rulemaking process, he said.

Florida Chief Financial Officer Jimmy Patronis, Agriculture Commissioner Wilton Simpson and Attorney General Ashley Moody also supported the change.

“As a father of two, CFO Patronis knows how important it is to bond with a newborn child,” Patronis’ spokesperson Devin Galleta said in a statement. He said Patronis hopes the measure “will go a long way to ensure state employees can focus on family while serving our state.”

Caitlyn Collins is an assistant professor of sociology at Washington University in St. Louis, interviewed 135 middle-class employed mothers in Sweden, Germany, Italy and the United States to understand their work-family conflict for her book “Making Motherhood Work: How Women Manage Careers and Caregiving.”

She said that offering paid maternity leave is “a huge win for working mothers” who are state workers in Florida.

“It’s a great step in the right direction and brings moms there one step closer to the leave that most women in peer countries have enjoyed for decades,’’ Collins said. “That said, what about fathers? This new policy suggests that it’s only mothers who can and should care for children, and fathers deserve this leave time as well.”

In a recent opinion piece in the Boston Globe, Shabo suggested that after the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade last year, there was widespread speculation that it would provoke government to address “hypocritical inconsistencies between family-values rhetoric and the absence of laws, policies, and practices like universal paid parental leave, maternity care and new investments in child care.”

But that discussion only happened in some states. For example, this year Minnesota passed legislation creating new guaranteed access to paid family and medical leave, and passed a new statewide paid sick and safe days law at the same time it passed new protections for abortion access. In Vermont, the Legislature passed an historic child-care funding override when the governor vetoed it.

But in 26 states that restrict or ban abortion access, Shabo said, none have state-guaranteed access to paid family and medical leave through a state paid leave program.

“For states that really want to be family friendly, they would provide paid family and medical leave to all working people in the same way that 13 states and the District of Columbia have done,’’ she said.

Mary Ellen Klas can be reached at meklas@miamiherald.com and @MaryEllenKlas