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Shelby County, Tenn., Mayor Lee Harris, seated, holds up a letter earlier this month reaffirming the county's commitment to resettling refugees. (AP Photo/Adrian Sainz)

Gov. Bill Lee recently announced policies on refugees and paid family/medical leave that make sense but may rankle some of his more conservative supporters.

They shouldn't, at this point.

The most recent announcement — that Tennessee would offer 100% paid family leave to all state executive-branch employees — gives the state a leg up in attracting and retaining talent when in competition with public sector and private sector employers.

It makes Tennessee the first state in the nation to offer such a policy. Nine other states offer paid parental leave (birth, adoption), but Tennessee's new order also includes qualifying events under the unpaid federal Family and Medical Leave Act such as care of a sick family member, active military duty of a family member, or personal health conditions that prevent employees from doing their job.

The Volunteer State, in the past decade, also was the first state to offer free community college or technical school to high school graduates and later to almost all adults.

The new policy, announced in an executive order, won't cost the state any more because the salaries and benefits of the employees taking the leave are already budgeted, a fact that should please those fearful of burgeoning benefits. In the past, the savings from unpaid leaves taken by employees were distributed to other state agencies. Now the money will remain with the employee.

The policy, which goes into effect March 1 through the state's Department of Human Services, will affect about 38,000 full-time executive branch employees with at least a year of service. It does not impose any mandates on private sector or local government employees.

A news release from the governor's office noted one additional month of paid family leave is associated with a 13% drop in infant mortality. It also mentioned the new policy could reduce long-term state health care costs by increasing early engagement by employees in their health care needs.

Only 17% of U.S. employees have access to paid parental leave, but President Donald Trump signed legislation last month that made some 2.1 million civilian federal workers eligible for such leave.

Bills are expected to be proposed in the upcoming session that would extend the new protection for thousands of additional state workers, including those in the legislative and judicial branches of the government as well as independent agencies.

Last month's announcement by Lee, that Tennessee would participate in the recently reshaped federal refugee resettlement program, bothered some people because they mistakenly equated refugees with illegal immigrants.

It is true that in the past several years many illegal immigrants tried to enter the U.S. through its Southern border by claiming to be refugees. But refugees are individuals who flee their country due to well-founded fears of persecution based on religion, political opinion, race, nationality or particular social group membership; are highly vetted; will be under some measure of control by the state; and will be limited to a fixed number.

When the U.S. permitted some 90,000 refugees annually into the country over the past 10 years, Tennessee averaged resettling some 1,361 individuals per year. With the national number now reduced to 18,000 annually by the Trump administration, the number in Tennessee proportionately could be fewer than 300.

The largest groups of refugees who were resettled in the Volunteer State for fiscal year 2019 did not come from Mexico or Central American countries, as some might have feared, but from Congo, Burma, Afghanistan and Burundi.

Certainly those who flee their countries for persecution reasons more fit the humanitarian mold of individuals the country has long stretched its wing over than those who try to come illegally in order to take advantage of better pay and benefits.

"If anyone comes in legally," said state Rep. Robin Smith, R-Hixson, "they're welcome." The current legal process regarding refugees "has been established."

She said where legislators could get involved is the financial impact on the state.

Currently, according to the Tennessee Office for Refugees, the federal Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration offers resettlement services and support for 90 days. The federal Office of Refugee Resettlement offers case management and financial support to facilitate self-sufficiency for 120 to 180 days, provides medical and cash assistance for eight months, and then offers employment service and specialized case management for up to five years.

State and other programs provide additional employment and case management assistance for up to five years.

When recurring costs are changed or added, said Smith, "there needs to be a discussion. It's the job of balancing the budget. It's not that we don't take fleeing religious persecution very deliberately."

With the family/medical leave order, Lee has moved Tennessee again into the forefront of states. With the resettlement announcement, he has demonstrated the continuing compassion of its citizens. What two things could you more want in a state?

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