KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (WATE) — Knox County has announced a new paid maternity leave policy for some employees. The new employment policy is applicable to those eligible for Family Medical Leave Act or FMLA.

Dr. Christina Hymer, a University of Tennessee professor of management and entrepreneurship at the Haslam College of Business is sharing some insight regarding paid parental leave in Tennessee and what prospective employees who are or are planning to become new parents need to know.

On a broader scale, the United States has been ranked among the lowest of wealthy nations for paid parental leave.

“The United States is the only industrialized country without federally provided paid parental leave for workers,” Hymer said. “Some states, such as California and New Jersey, passed legislation providing workers with access to paid parental leave. In Tennessee, however, access to paid parental leave is up to the discretion and capabilities of their employer.”

Paid leave, Hymer clarified, refers to time off from work where employees are compensated in some capacity, such as through the receipt of full or partial wages. Unpaid leave refers to time off from work where employees are not compensated.

“In instances of both paid and unpaid leave, employees retain their job and are typically expected to return after a pre-determined period of time,” Hymer said. “In some instances, the use of paid and unpaid leave can be combined, such as through 6 weeks of paid parental leave and 6 weeks of unpaid parental leave.”

Knox County’s new paid leave policy gives compensation to eligible employees for up to eight weeks at their full, regular rate of pay. If both new parents are employed with the county, they can either split the time with four weeks each, or give the full eight weeks to one of the parents.

The county’s previous paid parental leave had granted a maximum of 16 weeks – unpaid – with the first 12 weeks falling under FMLA and the final four weeks falling under the Tennessee Maternity and Adoption Care Leave Law.

Hymer provided more specifics regarding the federal and state provisions for paid parental leave: “Employees who are prospective parents should look carefully at FMLA eligibility requirements and work closely with their Human Resources representative and/or supervisor to determine their options,” she said. “Specific stipulations exist in order to take leave under FMLA, such as having worked for their employer for 12 or more months. Tennessee’s Parental Leave Act offers some slight variations for Tennessee workers, including the ability to take up to four months of parental leave compared to 12 weeks of leave under FMLA.”

There’s research that backs up the benefits of paid parental leave; Hymer said studies consistently show benefits toward organizations and workers when paid parental leave is provided.

“Research indicates that organizations that offer paid parental leave are more likely to realize higher levels of performance and have employees who are more committed and attached to the company,” she said.

“Recent research indicates that some workers, particularly racial/ethnic minority workers, are likely to experience reduced economic hardship upon taking paid leave compared to unpaid leave. Interestingly, however, another recent study reaffirms some concerns workers may have when taking leave, indicating that early-career workers who take paid parental leave experience slower wage growth than those who take unpaid parental leave,” Hymer said. “Beyond serving as a retention mechanism for existing employees, paid parental leave policies can serve as a valuable recruitment tool for working parents and/or those who hope to have children one day, representing the organization’s commitment towards working parents and more broadly issues tied to diversity, equity, and inclusion.”

The options that Tennessee workers can take when they become new parents can vary depending on where they work. It’s a balancing act in which many new parents have had to partake.

Hymer noted that research has pointed to many factors that make a workplace difficult and/or financially challenging for working mothers within the U.S.

“Recent research conducted in light of the COVID-19 pandemic has illuminated discrepancies among working mothers and working fathers and accelerated the departure of working mothers from the workforce relative to working fathers,” Hymer said. “Traditional gender roles suggest that women are disproportionately responsible for domestic tasks, and also handle more parenting responsibilities upon the birth of a child. These multi-source home and family demands, combined with difficulty identifying childcare options and the persistence of negative biases towards working mothers in the workplace, make being a worker and a mom a difficult reality for many working mothers to balance.”

So, what action can working prospective parents take in Tennessee? Hymer said it’s about communication and asking questions.

“Prospective parents should coordinate closely with their Human Resources representative or supervisor to determine options available to them, such as determining whether they have access to paid parental leave, short-term disability, or other voluntary benefits (e.g., access to IVF financing, hospital indemnity insurance, etc),” Hymer said. “I also encourage prospective parents to speak with other working parents at their organization to understand what leave options others have taken and request advice for asking/negotiating paid leave.”

“Seek to not only understand what one’s options are, but what the impact of taking those options is on one’s career within the organization. For instance, is there an implicit assumption that a worker who takes parental leave is expected to remain engaged in or connected to workplace initiatives while on leave or is there an expectation that they should be extra-productive upon return from leave? Simply looking around at what others have done in their organization and initiating these informal conversations can prove invaluable for prospective parents seeking to understand their options, any steps/requirements necessary to pursue those options, and any potential impact those options may have on their career within the organization.”