Pitkin County Commissioner Kelly McNicholas Kury is pictured during a recent meeting with her son Aloysius. Commissioners informally approved the addition of paid parental leave for county employees in a work session on Tuesday.

Paid parental leave soon will be included as a new benefit for Pitkin County employees.

County commissioners provided direction on the parental leave issue to staff during a work session on Tuesday. At the meeting, County Manager Jon Peacock presented the board with a series of updates to the county’s employee benefit package, including health insurance and retirement funds. But he differentiated those updates from the family leave discussion.

“This is probably the biggest change that is being proposed,” Peacock said. 

The county has work groups made up of employees who give feedback on workplace issues. Peacock said the groups have spent a significant amount of time this year honing in on the appropriate way to support new parents.

“There is a very clear recommendation around parental leave,” Peacock said. 

County employees already are covered under the federal Family Medical Leave Act, which requires employers to allow new mothers to return to their jobs within 12 weeks. But Peacock said the employee advisory group agreed there should be some level of paid leave provided directly from the county.

“There was real robust conversation about what the right amount of time of paid parental leave should be. Some felt we should increase it to eight weeks; some felt that four was adequate,” Peacock said. 

The group compromised with a recommendation for six weeks of paid leave for new mothers and new fathers. The financial impact of the new benefit varies, depending on the individual’s role within the governmental entity. 

“The impacts of this are fairly minimal from a budget perspective because you are budgeting for [a full-time employee] anyway. The financial risk is really around if a department has to backfill. That was really the conversation,” Peacock said. 

He and commissioner Kelly McNicholas Kury both cited studies that found adequate family leave can improve an organization’s bottom line by reducing turnover and creating employee loyalty.

“Studies are showing that things like productivity and retention are not reduced by providing leave to new parents, and that in fact over time employees’ loyalty and productivity go up,” McNicholas Kury said. 

She also pointed out that earlier this year when the state legislature was working on a mandated employee leave program, the commissioners proclaimed their support for a policy that covered 12 weeks of parental leave.

“I think we should be consistent in what our support has been,” she said.

McNicholas Kury said that parental leave is a small portion of the five decades that an average person puts into the workforce.

“I want to see a culture shift nationally, where we support employees for that one or two times in their entire working life that they may need 12 weeks off. And I think we could start that here,” McNicholas Kury said.

Commissioner Greg Poschman agreed that the county should hold itself to the same standards it encouraged at the state level.

“Is 12 weeks common? Are we advocating for 12 weeks on the state level and then not doing it here? That’s an interesting point, and that bothers me if we are not,” Poschman said.

Commissioner Patti Clapper was wary to extend paid paternity leave beyond six weeks. 

“ I think that 12 weeks is a lot,” Clapper said, expressing concern about the cost to the county if temporary workers need to be hired to fill in for parents while they were home with their newborns.

But McNicholas Kury maintained that research shows dramatic positive outcomes when parents can spend the early months with their children. She cited statistics about breastfeeding, postpartum depression, a father’s involvement throughout the child’s life, and aptitude testing well into childrens’ teen years, all being affected by babies spending time with their parents during the early developmental months.

“Babies don’t even sleep through the night until four months,” McNicholas Kury said. “We are asking people to come back to work when they are very much on duty [as parents].”

Commissioners George Newman and Steve Child both spoke of having six months or more with their children when they were born, but were hesitant to weigh in about extending the paid time off for county employees. Peacock told the board he would come back to them with more information about potential budgetary impacts of extending the leave.

As proposed, the six weeks of paid leave would have to be taken consecutively.

Clapper raised concerns about that requirement, especially as it relates to new dads. She pointed out that the Aspen Skiing Co. doesn’t require their paid time off to be used in one single block.

“I don’t know why we couldn't look at that so that it didn't have to be consecutive,” Clapper said.

The commissioners agreed that each individual family might have circumstances where they need flexibility regarding when parents choose to stay home with their baby. Child gave an example of a grandma who is able to help out with babysitting early on to allow the father to work, but that he might need to return to child care once that assistance is gone.

And, if parents had more leeway about when they can use paid parental leave, they would have more flexibility while navigating the dearth of infant care options in Pitkin County.

Peacock told commissioners he would return to them with an updated proposal that did not require the continuous six weeks and that explored a longer period of paid leave.

Other county business

The board also heard updates to the health insurance and retirement portions of the county’s benefits package.

Employees currently had paid time off separated from extended sick leave and government holidays. Staff is now proposing to combine the sick leave and paid time off into one unified “bucket.”

Clapper said when sick time and vacation time are combined, there is the risk of employees sacrificing their health in order to save days for vacation.

“I hate to see somebody say, ‘oh I have all these hours in my paid time off, I’m taking them all’’ and then they get sick,” she said.

She encouraged an internal information campaign warning employees against mismanaging their allotted time off.

As is the case nationwide, health insurance costs will be rising. Peacock said the end of the individual mandate in 2019 has created a decrease in insured residents in Pitkin County. 

“Locally that can impact our cost of health care because it could drive more non-payer or charity care at the hospitals,” he said. 

Overall, employee contributions will go up 2.5 percent in 2020.

The county also will be evaluating retirement plans. While the county pays an above-average 13 percent contribution to employee retirement accounts, there is little incentive for employees to elect to set aside additional funds.

An analysis of comparable mountain governments shows that Pitkin County employees are pacing well behind their peers with regard to retirement savings. In 2020, the county will begin paying an additional 1 percent of gross pay for employees that agree to match the contribution. 

Overall, the commissioners integrated their desire to have a competitive benefits package and supportive workplace for their employees.

“Can I just say how amazing it is that we are arguing if we are giving enough of a benefit,” Peacock pointed out. “That’s a remarkable thing for you guys to be considering.”

Alycin Bektesh is a reporter for the Aspen Daily News. She can be reached at Alycin@aspendailynews.com or on Twitter @alycinwonder.