As Kansas expands paid leave for state employees, advocates look to private sector

By: - July 13, 2021 10:08 am

Gov. Laura Kelly expanded paid family leave for Kansas state employees last week, but the majority of Kansas workers still lack access to paid leave or even job-protected leave. (Getty Images)

TOPEKA — As a staunch advocate for proper breastfeeding practices, Brenda Bandy has witnessed the way stressors from a return to work can undercut lactation.

Bandy, executive director of the Kansas Breastfeeding Coalition, said returning to work after a leave of absence for a newborn is commonly listed among the biggest barriers to continuing breastfeeding. In the United States and Kansas, she said, most jobs offer unpaid leave, but many cannot afford to take time off without income.

Advocates of paid leave point out that the United States is the only industrialized country with no paid requirement.

“Every single day that a parent can be home and not have economic consequences for not being able to receive full pay makes this huge difference for both the parent and the child,” Bandy said. We know there are better health outcomes for both mothers and babies the longer that they can be together after birth.”

Brenda Bandy, executive director of the Kansas Breastfeeding Coalition, says despite progress for government employees, Kansas is lagging behind many other states in paid parental leave offered in the private sector. (Submitted to Kansas Reflector)

Last week, Gov. Laura Kelly expanded the period of paid leave Kansas state employees can take when they become parents or caregivers. Advocates have praised the move but signaled a need for other states and the private sector to follow suit.

Under the Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993, certain employees are allowed 12 weeks of job-protected leave without pay. Even unpaid family leave under this act is inaccessible for 62% of working Kansans, according to data from Brandeis University.

In 2018, then-Gov. Jeff Colyer signed an executive order offering up to six weeks of paid leave to more than 17,000 executive branch jobs. Shortly after, the judiciary did the same.

Now, these state employees will have an additional two weeks of paid leave under Kelly’s executive order.

“Supporting working parents in our workforce is not only the right thing to do — it’s good for our economy,” Kelly said. “We’re committed to recruiting and keeping talented Kansans in our state and creating a supportive environment for our families.”

The order also makes foster parents eligible for the same eight-week leave if they are the primary caregiver. Secondary caregivers will receive four weeks, an increase of one week from the original policy.

Parental leave can now be used up to 30 days before birth and adoption, as well. New state employees become eligible after 180 days.

“Paid family leave is a win-win for both families and employers,” said Wendy Doyle, president and CEO of United WE, a women’s advocacy group. “Policies like this that expand these benefits to women and their families bolster economies, improve health and education outcomes and strengthen business through a stronger employee workforce.”

Doyle urged private sector employers to consider doing the same. Like Doyle, Bandy said the benefits would extend beyond just health.

The U.S. Department of Labor during the Obama administration argued paid leave could boost economic activity by $500 billion each year because more women would seek employment.

In Kansas, only 7% of employers offer paid leave, Bandy said, below the 25% nationwide who reported to the Society for Human Resource Management they offer a paid option. While the economic benefits of a private sector paid leave policy are likely to be less than predicted, Bandy believes paid leave would benefit all.

“It’s important for our economy because it shows that we have competitive employers,” Bandy said. “It’s important for the health and wellbeing of Kansas families that we have these types of family friendly policies but also for Kansas business.”

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Noah Taborda
Noah Taborda

Noah Taborda started his journalism career in public radio at KBIA in Columbia, Missouri, covering local government and producing an episode of the podcast Show Me The State while earning his bachelor’s degree in radio broadcasting at the University of Missouri School of Journalism. Noah then made a short move to Kansas City, Missouri, to work at KCUR as an intern on the talk show Central Standard and then in the newsroom, reporting on daily news and feature stories.

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