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Coconino County will move to join the city of Flagstaff in offering its employees a coveted benefit: paid parental leave.

Pending finalization and approval during the Board of Supervisors’ budgeting process in April, the benefit would be implemented July 1 and could cost the county more than $100,000 annually.

“This type of policy allows our employees to focus on their families and it supports our values as an organization," Erika Philpot, county human resources director, said. "It allows them to come back to work refreshed and ready to engage in their work. That then helps the citizens of Coconino County receive the best level of service.”

The county’s current maternity and paternity leave policy has been in place since 1996, with minor revisions made in its wording. The policy is based on the 1993 Family Medical Leave Act, which provides up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave a year. It also states parents can use their available paid time off -- including sick time and vacation leave -- or they may request a leave of absence without pay.

The differences between maternal and paternal leave are significant, with fathers being unable to use their paid time off for more than five days.

Philpot said the new plan strives to be more generous to fathers, as requested by employees.

As the proposal currently states, full-time employees who have worked at least six months for the county would be eligible to receive four weeks of their normal pay – up to $1,000 a week – following the birth, adoption or fostering of a child.

The policy was presented to the board at its work session last week, during which Philpot referenced parental leave programs that influenced the proposal, including that of the city of Flagstaff.

The city started its own paid family leave policy Sept. 20, providing 160 hours to full-time city employees and 224 hours to firefighters who have been employed for at least six months. Staff is eligible for the leave within one year of the birth or adoption of a child, being newly appointed as a child’s legal guardian or in cases of stillbirth.

Shannon Anderson, human resources director for the city, said employees have been excited about the benefit because such policies are still rare in municipal governments.

Already, 18 city employees have used the benefit. Many of them welcomed a new child early last year, Anderson said.

The county proposal states that an average of about 17 employees have taken maternity leave each fiscal year since 2011 and 10 have taken paternity leave. The fiscal years of 2011 and 2012 saw the most significant numbers, with 39 and 40 total parental leaves, respectively.

At an average of 27 total leaves per year, providing the benefit would cost the county an expected $108,000.

During the work session, the supervisors did not hesitate to demonstrate their support of the plan.

“I’m very happy that we’re at the stage where we’re able to talk about this parental support," Coconino Country Supervisor Lena Fowler said. "It is so important. ...It helps [parents] to figure out how they’re going to be able to balance their lives. It’s really great to have a new child in the house, but it creates challenges.”

Similarly, Supervisor Matt Ryan said the initiative would be an investment in both the county’s workforce and its families.

There is still much work to be done on this proposed policy.

The supervisors and human resources department will be working together to determine who is eligible for the services, what types of leave situations would be included and whether employees who stop working for the county after taking parental leave would be required to pay back the funds.

The supervisors were in favor of including stillborn, live birth and miscarriages, like the city, into the policy, because of the strain these events can place on families. They were also interested in removing a payback provision, stating that employees returning to work to avoid such a payback would not be fully engaged in their work.

Following additional consideration from human resources, the updated policy proposal will be voted upon during the county budgeting process in April.

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Kaitlin Olson can be reached at the office at kolson@azdailysun.com or by phone at (928) 556-2253. 

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