City-County building in Helena

The city-county building in Helena is seen in this file photo.

Paid parental leave may soon be available for Helena’s city employees following discussion and spoken support from the city commissioners on Wednesday.

Commissioner Rob Farris-Olsen instigated research into the initiative which could provide paid time off for new parents in a variety of situations. Based on preliminary cost estimates provided by the human resources department, the plan gained support from all four commissioners and Mayor Jim Smith.

On average over the past five years, eight city employees, mothers or fathers, have had children per year, according to a report from city human resources director James Fehr. Providing paid parental leave is estimated to cost the city $9,500 per week offered if the average of eight employees requesting it per year stayed the same.

The parental leave would be open not only to mothers, but also fathers, adoptees of infants, foster parents of infants and same sex couples, Fehr said.

“There are a lot of overall benefits for the city and it’s employees with this,” he said. “It’s a great tool to attract and retain the most qualified employees. It also allows parents to bond with children and come back when they’re ready. It’s definitely a trend that is picking up momentum across the country.”

After discussion, city commissioners requested further research into the costs and effects of offering four weeks of paid parental leave at an estimated cost of $38,000 per year.

“Compared to the million we spent on increased personnel costs this year, offering this seems like a pretty minor impact on our budget,” Farris-Olsen said.

While the federal Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993 guarantees employees 12 weeks of leave for qualified purposes, including childbirth, it does not guarantee pay. City employees do have a certain amount of allotted paid vacation and sick days that can be used, but the proposed paid family leave would be additional to all of the current benefits.

According to the human resources report, the majority of costs would come from overtime pay for employees or temporary hires covering the duties of absent workers.

The city police department would be the most impacted by the change, not only because they have the highest rate of new parents, five per year, but also because they would have the hardest time filling in for absent officers.

Chief Troy McGee said the department already has trouble filling in shifts with officers on overtime voluntarily.

“We could end up having to order people to work overtime, rather than finding volunteers, and that is not good for morale,” McGee said.

While Farris-Olsen pushed for offering six weeks of paid leave, Mayor Smith suggested a more conservative initial offering to detect any unforeseen effects before offering more.

“I am increasingly concerned about the physical, emotional and mental health and safety of our officers, particularly following the tragedy in Bozeman on Saturday,” Smith said. “These guys are under a great deal of stress every day, which has a real effect on the health of themselves and their families.”

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