Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee's plan offers 12 weeks of paid family leave to 38,000 state employees

Gov. Bill Lee speaks at a roundtable discussion during a visit to Gestamp Inc. on Friday, Feb. 1, 2019, in Chattanooga, Tenn. This was Gov. Lee's first visit to Chattanoga as Governor of Tennessee.

NASHVILLE - Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee on Tuesday announced a first-of-its-kind paid family and medical leave policy offering up to 12 weeks off for Tennessee state executive branch workers facing major events.

It will allow employees across most state departments to take time off in order to care for a new baby after birth or adoption, as well as starting foster care or providing care to a sick family member.

"Strong families make for strong communities, and I am proud that Tennessee will lead the nation in supporting our employees," the Republican governor said after issuing an executive order. "This is an impactful investment in the state workforce and will allow us to continue to attract and retain the best workforce possible."

Saying that Tennessee "should be a leader," the governor said, "one of my most important jobs is to create an environment that allows those employees and their families to thrive."

The governor's office says no other state has enacted such a policy "extending to the full spectrum" family and medical leave to its workers. Nine states have granted paid parental leave of some extent to their employees.

In December, President Donald Trump signed into law legislation making some 2.1 million civilian federal workers eligible for paid parental leave.

The Tennessee policy is intended to support state government efforts to attract and retain "top talent."

As the economy continues to grow and the labor market becomes more competitive, the Lee administration says, there is an increased demand for jobs that can provide employees the stability required to raise and grow families.

House Speaker Cameron Sexton, R-Crossville, said in a statement that he supports "the idea of allowing new mothers and fathers opportunities to spend more quality time with their newly adopted or newborn children.

"I look forward to working with the Governor, the House and Senate, Rep. Helton and our Fiscal Review Committee to determine the best ways we can continue to strengthen our Tennessee families," Sexton said.

While Lee is implementing the executive branch program by executive order, Rep. Esther Helton, R-East Ridge, will be carrying legislation to extend it to independent government entities such as the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation as well as the legislative and judicial branches of government.

"I think that our state employees are so hard working, and as a working mother I know how it feels to have to choose work sometimes over my family. It's a very difficult decision," said Helton, who earlier joined Lee and others in announcing the policy.

"But," she added, "to know if you have a baby or if you have an adoption you can have 12 weeks off with pay, it could make all the difference in the world."

As for costs, the administration says it will not require any new state appropriations. That's because the state already budgets 100% of an employee's salary and benefits annually. Any employee who takes FMLA leave now has that portion of their salary withheld, which reverts to agencies in the form of savings, Human Resources Department Commissioner Juan Williams told reporters after Lee's announcement.

Williams said the executive branch's reversion of unspent funds typically amounts to about $900,000 annually. Asked whether that would cover all the costs of the program, Williams said he believes it would. But if it does go over, he said, anticipated increased productivity from employees would cover that.

It's expected to boost state savings on health care costs by encouraging early employee engagement in their health care needs.

Sen. Steve Dickerson, R-Nashville, is sponsoring the Senate bill. Also joining in the announcement was Tennessee Supreme Court Chief Justice Jeff Bivins, who applauded the initiative.

The Lee administration also emphasizes the new policy "will not impose any mandates on private sector or local government employers."

According to the governor's office:

- Paid family leave is a rarity for most employees across the U.S., with only 17% of employees having access to it.

- One additional month of paid family leave is associated with a 13% drop in infant mortality.

- Sixty nine percent of full-time working Americans believe receiving paid parental leave is important when looking for a job.

- The administration also says paid leave provides employees time to build stronger parent/child relationships, experience family transitions without fears of financial instability and address health emergencies without losing important financial resources.

Contact Andy Sher at asher@timesfreepress.com or 615-255-0550. Follow him on Twitter @AndySher1.