Governor broaches paid family medical leave – again

By: - January 24, 2023 6:02 am
Gov. Bill Lee, Jan. 21, 2023. (Photo: John Partipilo)

Gov. Bill Lee, Jan. 21, 2023. (Photo: John Partipilo)

Three years after shelving a family medical leave plan, Gov. Bill Lee appears ready to dust off the proposal in an effort to recruit and keep state employees.

A day before his second inauguration, the Republican governor told reporters he is interested in looking at methods to improve the state’s “attractiveness” as an employer.

“We need to be able to provide a work environment for state employees, for teachers in this state, that attracts, retains and appropriately provides for those teachers, for example, who have a high calling and very challenging job,” Lee said after making a walk-through for the inaugural ceremony.

The details of his proposal aren’t clear yet. The governor is set to make the annual State of the State address Jan. 30 when he is likely to propose major policy initiatives.

In January 2020, Lee pushed a family leave policy for state employees permitting up to 12 weeks of annual medical leave time. It required legislative action but received a cool reception from Republicans.

Lee acknowledged at the time it could cost the state a large amount of money, though he said it would not require more state appropriations.

We need to be able to provide a work environment for state employees, for teachers in this state, that attracts, retains and appropriately provides for those teachers, for example, who have a high calling and very challenging job.

– Gov. Bill Lee

The governor also signed an executive order, effective March 1 that year, granting medical leave to state employees under the executive branch, about 38,000 people.

The governor later backed away from the paid family medical leave, which helped people who become parents, cared for a family member or went through other life-changing events. He opted not to push legislation, either, and shortly afterward instead proposed permit-less carry for handguns, a version of “constitutional carry” that passed a year later.

Then, the COVID-19 pandemic struck in early March 2020 and money dried up for most new ideas.

House Speaker Cameron Sexton, who is planning legislation allowing six weeks of paid leave for teachers, said Monday the governor is talking about maternity and paternity leave for births and adoptions for employees in the executive branch of government. Sexton said he hasn’t seen any legislation yet and would wait before commenting. He did not discuss his legislative plans.

House Democratic Caucus Chairman John Ray Clemmons said Monday his caucus would “welcome any progress” on paid family leave for employees. He pointed out Democratic Reps. Gloria Johnson of Knoxville and Johnny Shaw of Bolivar have led legislative efforts on the matter for years but “with little to no support” from Republicans.

“To the extent there is a sincere effort to substantively demonstrate our state’s commitment to and appreciation for Tennessee’s workers, including teachers, (Department of Children’s Services) caseworkers and others, we always stand willing to work across the aisle and make paid family leave a reality for working families,” Clemmons said in a statement.

House Democratic Caucus Chair John Ray Clemmons of Nashville said members of his caucus have led legislative efforts to gain family leave but “with little to no support” from Republicans.

The Nashville Democrat noted “only time will tell” if the governor is willing to “put his back into this to get it past his friends in the extremist minority holding our state government hostage.”

Lee hasn’t floated any numbers on family leave, but Tennessee had $900,000 in savings in fiscal 2019 when people took unpaid medical leave and $3.5 million in fiscal 2018.

Democrats’ legislation at the time, which would have created a family leave fund, would have cost $15 million based on the salaries of more than 2,500 state employees who took medical leave in fiscal 2019.

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Sam Stockard
Sam Stockard

Sam Stockard is a veteran Tennessee reporter and editor, having written for the Daily News Journal in Murfreesboro, where he served as lead editor when the paper won an award for being the state's best Sunday newspaper two years in a row. He has led the Capitol Hill bureau for The Daily Memphian. His awards include Best Single Editorial from the Tennessee Press Association.

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