Lawmakers seek to guarantee paid parental leave for state SC employees with new children

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CHARLESTON, SC (WCSC) — South Carolina lawmakers believe this could be the year they can guarantee state employees paid time off when they welcome a child into their family.

While parental leave may be more common in the private sector, government workers currently have to take advantage of their sick leave or vacation if they want to spend time at home after the birth or death. adoption of their child.

But legislation with bipartisan support in the State House would change that, giving parents up to six weeks of paid leave.

In the Senate, the bill is sponsored by Democrat Darrell Jackson of Richland County, who told a Senate subcommittee on Tuesday that he is still trying to find a personal backstory for the legislation he is proposing, so to convince his colleagues that the bill is important to South Carolinians.

But the story behind this particular bill is closer to him than most, as it was inspired by Jackson’s administrative assistant and voter services coordinator Ashley Stewart, who also plays the same role for the senator. Scott Talley, R – Spartaburg.

In 2019, Stewart was carrying her second son, Carter, during a high-risk pregnancy in which she suffered from preeclampsia and gestational diabetes.

“I saw her one day really sick, and I said, ‘Ashley, why don’t you take the next few days off?'” Jackson recalled. “She said, ‘Senator, I’d love to, but I’m saving up my sick days and vacations.’ She says, ‘Because when I have the baby, I want to have some time with the baby before I go back to work.’ »

Stewart said the two senators always encouraged her to put her health first — taking off when she needed to for doctor’s appointments and working from home, in the pre-pandemic year, when she didn’t feel well – but she was still hesitant to use it. sick leave or vacation before Carter arrived.

“It was very difficult, in the end, to come to work every day, just because I didn’t want to waste that time,” she said. “I wanted to save that time to spend it with my newborn.”

Her plan changed when a doctor’s appointment before her last month of pregnancy turned into a hospitalization, and Carter was born days later, nearly a month early.

Then, shortly after he was born, schools closed at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, and Stewart had to stay home even longer as his eldest son, Robert, learned virtually. This was followed by both of Stewart’s parents being hospitalized with the coronavirus.

Stewart ended up using all of her sick days, which she had accumulated over about a decade of working as a state employee, as well as some of her vacation time.

“My father was really sick. I mean, I was afraid he wouldn’t make it, and if he hadn’t, I wouldn’t have had any extra time to take because I just took that time for my newborn,” she said.

Witnessing Stewart’s experience prompted Jackson to introduce his paid family leave bill, S.11. A House companion, primarily sponsored by Rep. Beth Bernstein, D-Richland, passed the House last year, in the first year of a two-year legislative session.

The Senate and House bill was introduced to a Senate finance subcommittee on Tuesday. With some differences in the two proposals – about who would be eligible for the leave, as the Senate version included state employees who began caring for children in foster care, which the bill of the House ruled out – the panel of senators voted to amend the two bills to read the same as they passed them to the committee level with a favorable report.

Under the current version of the proposal, mothers who work for the state and give birth would be guaranteed six weeks of paid leave, while fathers would receive two weeks. Mothers and fathers who adopt or adopt would also be eligible for two weeks.

Jackson feels confident about the future of bipartisan, bicameral legislation.

“Of course we had to do our due diligence, look at the cost, look at how we can get there without being a financial burden on the state. But I think some things are worth the price,” he said.

At Jackson’s request due to inspiration from Stewart’s legislation, senators will prioritize the Senate version of the bill, seeking to pass it in the chamber before the April 10 deadline and at the send to the House, where Bernstein would seek to obtain his colleagues. on board with legislation similar to the one they passed last year.

If the Senate bill doesn’t meet that deadline, senators will revert to Bernstein’s House version, and if it passes the Senate, a small group of House and Senate members will have to negotiate a compromise to be sent. in the office of Governor Henry McMaster. .

After her experience, Stewart believes parents shouldn’t have to choose between spending time with their new child or ensuring they are financially able to support their growing family.

“While this bill can’t help me because I’ve been through it before, I just pray it helps future state employees who are going through this,” she said.

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