Palo Alto took a baby step last month toward improving City Hall morale when it approved a new policy that grants employees six weeks of parental leave at full salary.
The policy, which the council approved on Dec. 10 with no discussion or objections, followed a series of meetings between then-City Manager James Keene and city employees. According to a report from the Human Resources Department, employees identified a paid parental leave policy as a "top priority of the workforce" and said that the absence of such a policy is "negatively impacting recruitment, retention and employee morale."
The new policy provides parental leave at 100 percent salary for six weeks, a period that can be supplemented with additional time, as accrued by the employee. It applies to all genders and it offers coverage for birth, adoption and foster placement.
Employees will be able to take the paid time off at any time during the 12-month period immediately following the birth, adoption or placement of a child with the employee.
The new policy will replace a prior one that aligned with federal and state laws, which provided job protection and continuation of benefits for new parents for up to 12 weeks. That policy did not, however, provide pay for employees during their leave unless they use their banked vacation time or sick leave.
Under these circumstances, the report states, employees who have not banked enough time will "find themselves making the difficult choice of taking time off without pay or returning to work sooner than desired."
The new policy, the report states, "is better than the benefit currently provided by other local government employers and is progressive in that it is gender-neutral and not impacted by the employee's marital status or sexual orientation."
Several Palo Alto employees attended the meeting to voice support for the policy, in some cases bringing their babies and toddlers along.
Elise Sbarbori, a manager in the Public Works Department, was among those who encouraged the council to support the new law. Sbarbori, who joined the city six years ago, told the council that she was shocked to learn three years ago when she was pregnant that the city has no paid-leave policy.
The lack of a policy, she said, "seemed out of step with the city I know Palo Alto to be."
"Palo Alto means a healthy city, healthy families, healthy communities. It seemed like such a strange oversight. It's incongruous with who we are."
The experience of giving birth to a son and recovering from childbirth was very difficult, both physically and emotionally, even absent any complications, Sbarbori said.
"I've seen colleagues in less fortunate circumstances return to work earlier than is recommended or be dealt a huge financial blow if there are complications or if they, their partner or the infant require additional care," Sbarbori said.
Lacey Lutes, an account representative in the Utilities Department, concurred. Lutes, who joined the city more than six years, told the council that she diligently saved all her leave time since starting her job. Then she had to use it all when she joined the Air National Guard, which required her to go through basic military training and technical training.
"When I got back, my husband and I decided to start our family and I had absolutely nothing," Lutes said.
Holding her daughter, she thanked the council for the new policy, which she said will directly impact many city employees.
"A lot of people have not been here for six-and-a-half years. This policy makes a huge difference to use," Lutes said.
According to staff, the policy provides stronger benefits than most local governments, which utilize State Disability Insurance, a program that provides up to 70 percent of salary for up to six weeks with a cap of $1,216 per week. As such, Palo Alto's new policy offers more benefits than competitor employers such as the cities of Mountain View, Redwood City, Sunnyvale and Santa Clara.
Palo Alto officials estimate that the program would cost somewhere in the $100,000 to $200,000, which would be used to backfill certain positions by hiring temporary workers or having other employees work overtime to fill in for colleagues who take parental leave. This would apply mostly to police, fire and utility positions, according to staff. The majority of positions would not need to be backfilled.
"There are also short-term productivity impacts, when people are out of office and positions are not backfilled," the Human Resources report states. "We are convinced that the positive benefits of this program outweigh that impact."