When Allegheny County Controller Chelsa Wagner served in the Pennsylvania House of Representatives, she took time off — just 10 days — to have her first child.
"I was the first and only Democrat ever to give birth while in office," she says. Women representatives prior to her had been mothers while in office, but the whole thing was "seemingly foreign there." (Pennsylvania ranks 39th for the proportion of women in the legislature, according to the Rutgers Center for American Women and Politics.)
Her husband, meanwhile, was granted two months' paid paternity leave from his employer to stay home with their new child. She had her second child three years ago, a year into her term as county controller.
"I experienced some of the hardships while seeing some of the benefits," Wagner says of paid leave. "I've seen a lot of my friends' experiences too, in both the public and private sectors."
This past Labor Day, Wagner announced that the roughly 100 employees in her office — which is independently run from the rest of county government — would have the option of paid family and emergency leave.
Wagner's office was the first public employer in the region to offer the benefit — six weeks at two-thirds of the employee's base salary. Last month, both Pittsburgh and Allegheny County approved paid parental leave for their full-time non-union employees at full salary for the birth, adoption or foster placement of a new child. So far, one employee has taken the leave.
"We know when parents get to spend time with children early on, all society benefits. And when we give employees flexibility to enjoy family life, we tell them we value their well-being, and that helps retention," says Pittsburgh City Councilor Natalia Rudiak, who brought the resolution to city council.
Wagner's office, the city and the county are now offering their workers something that, compared to the rest of the developed world, the U.S. is lagging on.
Of the 185 countries surveyed by the International Labor Organization, the U.S. is one of two nations that does not offer paid time off. (The other is Papau New Guinea.)
"Every other developed country offers paid maternity-leave benefits through social-security programs, so businesses don't have to shoulder the entire cost," says Heather Arnet, CEO of the Women and Girls Foundation of Western Pennsylvania.
Opponents claim that companies cannot afford paid family leave. But Arnet says that according to the Society for Human Resource Management, every time an employee quits, it costs between six and nine months of that employee's salary to recruit and train a replacement.
"If the employer invested that money in retaining a valuable employee, the long-term return on investment would be much greater," Arnet says.
That's why Wagner jumped on board last year.
"One of the big concerns for us was retention and attraction of talent," Wagner says. Her office is mainly comprised of auditors, IT professionals and accountants, who she says are difficult to recruit.
California, New Jersey and Rhode Island have implemented social-security-style family leave for public and private-sector workers, rather than putting the liability on the employer. According to the National Partnership for Women & Families, another organization advocating for paid leave, the policies have improved worker retention and, in many cases, have been cost-neutral for companies.
In Pennsylvania, the only option for private-sector workers is the federal Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA) — 12 weeks off unpaid, offered to employees at companies with more than 50 workers. Additionally, employers can require employees to exhaust all sick time and vacation days before taking it, a criterion that is not required by Wagner's policy, nor the city's nor the county's.
"Then there's no time for follow-up doctor appointments or future sick days [upon return], and it makes life difficult for families," City Councilor Rudiak says. "We want to be as forward-thinking and progressive as possible." She also says the city chose the six-week timeline because daycares do not accept newborns before that age.
"Pennsylvania doesn't really do much beyond what federal law requires, and beyond extended benefits for some state workers," says Vicki Shabo, vice president of the National Partnership for Women & Families. Her organization gave Pennsylvania a grade of D on its report about the 50 states' family-leave policies.
The commonwealth's 73,000 workers do not receive paid leave, but can take six months unpaid while keeping their benefits, a policy that was implemented in 2007.
Starting this spring, under a new Philadelphia law, companies with 10 or more employees will have to provide paid sick leave under new legislation. Employees earn one hour of sick time for every 40 hours worked.
Rudiak says that Pittsburgh City Council cannot pass such legislation due to a 2009 Supreme Court ruling that basically decided that the city cannot govern certain personnel issues of private businesses.
The issue is also being debated on the national stage. The Family and Medical Insurance Leave Act, which would be a national insurance leave program under Social Security — was introduced in 2013 by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) and Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.), but remains in committee.
As for increasing family-leave benefits locally, Rudiak says, "When Pittsburgh leads, the region follows," and she applauded the county's policy that followed suit. "I hope private industry follows."