RALEIGH — About 33,000 UNC System employees across the state may get paid time off to take care of a new child, if the UNC Board of Governors signs off on a new policy.
The proposed policy for paid parental leave was in the works before Gov. Roy Cooper issued an executive order in May that would allow state employees in agencies he oversees to be eligible for up to eight weeks of paid parental leave, according to a letter from UNC System Interim President Bill Roper dated Aug. 23.
When the Office of State Human Resources released a list of agencies offering the paid parental leave earlier this month, the UNC System wasn't on it. Instead it was listed among those still undecided about the policy.
In Roper's letter, he said the UNC System will present a proposal to the UNC Board of Governors at its September meeting to approve a paid parental leave benefit that is "largely equivalent to the provisions of the Governor's executive order."
The employees most affected by this new parental leave benefit would be those in two groups, known as EHRA non-faculty employees and university SHRA employees, UNC System spokesperson Josh Ellis said.
SHRA stands for subject to the state's Human Resources Act, and those employees are most often support staff. EHRA employees are exempt from the act; the ones affected by this policy are mostly managers.
The Board of Governors must approve any new employee leave policy for EHRA employees, according to Roper. Once approved, the UNC System would simultaneously implement it for SHRA employees, he said.
"Slightly over 33,000 University employees would be impacted, not counting our almost 14,000 faculty who under BOG policy already have the option of their institutions offering parental leave," Ellis said.
One parent says she's thrilled
The parents who would be affected by the leave policy include Eva Feucht, who works at N.C. State University. She has two children and her third is due in November.
As director of Park Scholarships, Feucht is an EHRA employee, so she accumulates leave faster than some of her co-workers. Even so, after working at N.C. State for 10 years before her first child, and with less than three years between her first and second child, she had to use unpaid parental leave.
Feucht had to use a combination of vacation and sick time, trying to plan ahead not knowing what kind of childbirth she would have. Medical recovery from a Caesarean section takes longer than from vaginal delivery. Then parents have to plan for what leave they may need after coming back, too.
Feucht has a 4-year-old and 22-month-old. Right now, she's planning to use some unpaid leave in order to take off the 12 weeks allowed under the federal Family and Medical Leave Act, she told The News & Observer in a phone interview.
She is also a hiring manager, and said that paid parental leave will help her compete with the state of Virginia and the private sector for talented employees.
"The state of Virginia, in adopting their paid parental leave policy [in 2018], extends it to all employees. In my view that's extremely important, that parental leave is not [just] about giving birth but about having a child join your family," Feucht said.
Feucht said she is thrilled that the UNC System wants to make this change.
"I'm hiring right now, and I think that this helps. And I have employees that are parents, and I think this helps. It helps us do a better job of serving the state, ultimately," she said.
"This is a great place to work, and that's in large part because the work we do makes a big difference in our state. There are also the ways that your employer helps you live the life that you want to live," she said.
When the paid leave would happen
Roper said the policy would take time to put in place.
"While we cannot offer a definitive timeline, subject to the BOG's approval, we will work through implementation details as quickly as possible. However, given the size of the University's workforce and the need to update human resources policies and timekeeping systems at 17 distinct constituent institutions, this will require some time to implement," Roper said in the letter.
Roper said UNC leaders were pleased to see Cooper's executive order because the UNC System office had already been "actively supporting a collaborative effort between the UNC System Staff Assembly and the N.C. State University Council on the Status of Women to develop a proposal for a paid parental leave program for all constituent institutions of the University. The Council had already completed a significant amount of work to benchmark and develop a proposal for this benefit," Roper said.
Feucht is part of a working group affiliated with the Council on the Status of Women, as is Jane Harrison, another N.C. State employee.
Harrison has worked for the N.C. Sea Grant program for four years and has a "potential interest in becoming a parent," she told The News & Observer in a phone interview.
A coastal economic specialist, Harrison has worked at other universities that have paid parental leave programs, including The Ohio State University and the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
"I guess I kind of expected that N.C. State would have it, and was surprised they do not have it here," she said. "I think I was naive and assumed that working for state government, generally one of the benefits of working in a government position — and we are state employees — is that you may not have a lot of salary potential but the benefit package is good."
Taking unpaid parental leave would make it challenging to pay bills, Harrison said.
"On a personal level, whether or not I have children, if I do I'm the breadwinner. I'm the only one who gets health insurance through their employer," she said. Harrison's husband does not get health insurance through his employer. Taking unpaid leave can also mean having to pay extra for health coverage during that gap.
"Ultimately I don't think health care should be dependent on having a spouse," she said.
Harrison said the UNC System would be able to attract and keep more talented employees if it offers the paid parental leave. The message would be that "if you're a parent, you belong here, too. We support you," she said.
The Board of Governors is scheduled to meet Sept. 19-20.