NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee is backpedaling on a promise to offer up to 12 weeks of annual paid family leave for state workers through an executive order.
Instead, the Republican announced Wednesday he will pursue the idea through legislation inside a skeptical GOP-dominated Statehouse.
“After consultation with legislative leaders, we feel the best course of action is to implement paid family leave via legislation rather than executive order,” Lee said in a statement. “We will propose legislation that is retroactive to March 1, 2020, so that no state employee is negatively impacted by this change in course.”
Lee originally announced the executive order in early January, saying that it would apply to approximately 38,000 full-time executive branch employees who had at least a year of service.
The goal was to grant paid leave for such events as the birth of a child, adoption or foster care, care of a sick family member, active military duty of a family member, or personal health conditions that render employees unable to do their job.
Lee’s administration initially said the plan was nonpartisan — and necessary to reduce employee turnover rates and help address health care costs.
However, lawmakers have remained tepid toward Lee’s executive order despite support from family advocates. When Lee plugged the plan during his annual State of the State address, Republican members gave a cool response, others declined to stand and applaud.
“I’m proud of our state workers, and offering them this benefit will help us continue to retain the best and brightest and help those who help our state,” Lee said at the time.
House Speaker Cameron Sexton had said he was supportive of the governor’s idea but cautioned that more information would be needed if it were to apply to additional state employees.
Sexton said in a statement Wednesday that he agrees with Lee’s plan to proceed through legislation instead of the executive order.
“This path will allow everyone to have a voice in the process and make this policy permanent,” Sexton said. “We look forward to working with the Governor, Lt. Governor McNally, House and Senate members, and the bill’s sponsors.”
Randy Stamps, executive director of the Tennessee State Employees Association union, said in a statement that “legislation will ensure this policy will be a lasting legacy for our governor and the legislature.”
About 80% of U.S. workers in the private sector still lack access to paid family leave. Eight states, plus Washington, D.C., have or will soon implement paid family leave laws that extend to private industry. Some segments of the public sector are covered among those states, where pay rates vary.
A number of states also have enacted parental leave specifically for state workers. Shortly after Lee’s January announcement about signing the paid parental leave executive order, Idaho Republican Gov. Brad Little unveiled a plan for state employees to receive up to eight weeks of paid parental leave starting July 1.
Currently, Tennessee state employees who need paid time off under the federal Family Medical Leave Act tend to use whatever earned time they have, such as vacation or sick days, according to the state Department of Human Resources.
Additionally, any state employees who take unpaid leave allowed under the Family Medical Leave Act now have that portion of their salaries withheld and the money reverts to agencies in the form of savings.
Reporter Jonathan Mattise contributed to this report from Nashville.
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