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Seattle Council should meet its own parental leave goals

Family policy was relegated to the backseat as the Seattle City Council missed another monumental opportunity to lead the charge on providing paid parental leave.

On November 16, the Seattle City Council failed to allocate $1.5 million dollars to provide 12 weeks of paid parental leave for its workers. Instead of following through on the stated intent to increase the current 4 weeks to 12 for its employees, Council members chose to pay down a loan on City property that isn’t actually due this year. Adding insult to injury, the property is slated to be sold, meaning the loan repayment will simply flow back to the City.

Twelve weeks is the minimum standard practiced by every other developed nation in the world. Councilmember Jean Godden, the champion for this issue at the City, has gone on record saying that “our goal was always to go to 12 weeks.”

Unless the Council reverses itself on Monday, that goal will be needlessly shoved aside for now.

After failing to deliver on the 12-week minimum standard for its own employees, Seattle City Council opted to put $10,000 toward studying citywide paid parental leave. To be fair, there are some important questions that remain unanswered, and a study could help. What is the best funding mechanism? Would companies get to opt out of contributing to the funding if they already provide their workers with this benefit?

However, the $10,000 allocated isn’t close to enough money to produce an in-depth report that could truly help us answer these questions. For comparison, when the City decided to study its internal gender wage gap, it spent roughly $100,000. It is, of course, ironic that the City would put 10 times the amount of resources into studying an internal gender wage gap as it would toward studying and implementing a citywide initiative for one of the best solutions proven to help close the wage gap.

Councilmember Mike O’Brien says that this $10,000 will be used to host experts to brief the City on best practices. While helpful, what we need is a serious analysis. Many proponents argue that the City isn’t the best place to implement paid family leave, but rather, this should be done at the state level. Either way, $10,000 won’t help us seriously answer outstanding questions.

The chief concern expressed by the dissenting Council members — Tom Rasmussen, Tim Burgess, John Okamoto, Jean Godden — was that the money to be used for parental leave comes from the general fund as a result of this year’s budget surplus, not a regular occurrence.

Of course, it would be irresponsible for the city to pass a new measure without some idea of how to pay for it more than 12 months out. The issue with the dissenting Council members’ stance is that they do know exactly where the money has to come from. The pending implementation of parental leave is a matter of priorities. To be clear, any paid parental leave proposal — whether for four weeks or the 12 weeks supposedly advocated by every member of the council — will have to come out of this same funding source, the general fund, regardless of an occasional budget surplus.

Given that the estimated $1.5 million implementation cost represents only 1 percent of the current human services budget, the question must be asked, what exactly are these dissenting Council members waiting for in order to make paid family leave a reality? Surely, the current budget surplus could have created a 12-month window in which the city could then find the necessary offsets to fund an initiative that all Council members claim they want to fund anyway. If there are truly substantiated concerns that the City can’t afford to pay for 12 weeks, we need to hear those.

On Monday, at the council’s final budget hearing, Councilmember Kshama Sawant will try again to propose 12 weeks of paid leave. If she is not successful, I’m hopeful the new incoming Council members will take a different approach.

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