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Lawmakers look to guarantee paid parental leave for SC state employees with new children

Published: Mar. 22, 2022 at 9:24 PM EDT|Updated: Mar. 22, 2022 at 9:34 PM EDT
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CHARLESTON, S.C. (WCSC) - South Carolina lawmakers believe this could be the year they will be able to guarantee paid time off for state employees when they welcome a child into their family.

While parental leave might be more common in the private sector, state workers currently have to tap into their sick days or vacation if they want to spend time at home after their child is born or adopted.

But legislation with bipartisan support at the State House would change that, offering parents up to six weeks paid leave.

In the Senate, the bill is sponsored by Democrat Darrell Jackson of Richland County, who told a Senate subcommittee Tuesday that he always tries to find a personal backstory for legislation he offers, to convince his colleagues that bill matters to South Carolinians.

But the story behind this particular bill is closer to him than most, as it was inspired by Jackson’s administrative assistant and constituent services coordinator, Ashley Stewart, who also serves in the same role for Sen. Scott Talley, R – Spartanburg.

In 2019, Stewart was carrying her second son, Carter, during a high-risk pregnancy in which she dealt with preeclampsia and gestational diabetes.

“I saw her one day really sick, and I said, ‘Ashley, why don’t you take the next couple days off?’” Jackson recalled. “She said, ‘Senator, I would really love to, but I’m saving my sick days and my vacation.’ She says, ‘Because when I have the baby, I want to have time to spend with the baby before I come back to work.’”

Stewart said both senators still encouraged her to put her health first — taking off when she needed for doctors’ appointments and working from home, in the pre-pandemic year, when she wasn’t feeling well — but she was still reluctant to use her sick days or vacation ahead of Carter’s arrival.

“It was very rough to, at the end, come to work every day, just because I didn’t want to lose that time,” she said. “I wanted to save that time to spend with my newborn.”

Her plan changed when a doctor’s appointment going into her final month of pregnancy turned into a hospitalization, and Carter was born a few days later, nearly a month early.

Then shortly after his birth, schools shut down as the COVID-19 pandemic began, and Stewart had to stay home even longer as her older son, Robert, learned virtually. That was followed by both Stewart’s parents being hospitalized with the coronavirus.

Stewart ended up using all her sick days, which she had accumulated over the course of about a decade of work as a state employee, along with a chunk of her vacation time.

“My dad was really sick. I mean, I was scared he wouldn’t make it, and had he not, I wouldn’t have had any additional time to take because I just took that time for my newborn,” she said.

Witnessing Stewart’s experience prompted Jackson to file his paid family leave bill, S.11. A House companion, primarily sponsored by Rep. Beth Bernstein, D – Richland, passed the House last year, in the first year of a two-year legislative session.

Both the Senate and the House bill came before a Senate Finance subcommittee Tuesday. With some differences in the two proposals — namely who would be eligible for leave, as the Senate version included state employees who have started caring for foster children, which the House bill excluded — the panel of senators voted to amend both bills to read the same as they advanced them to the committee level with a favorable report.

Under the current version of the proposal, mothers who work for the state and give birth would be guaranteed six weeks paid time off, while fathers would receive two weeks. Both moms and dads who adopt or foster would be eligible for two weeks as well.

Jackson feels confident about the bipartisan and bicameral legislation’s future.

“Of course, we had to do the due diligence, look at the cost, look at how we can happen without being a burden to the state from a financial standpoint. But I think some things are worth the price,” he said.

At Jackson’s request because of the legislation’s inspiration from Stewart, senators will give priority to the Senate version of the bill, looking to pass it in the chamber by an April 10 deadline and send over to the House, where Bernstein would look to get her colleagues on board with legislation similar to what they had passed last year.

If the Senate bill does not beat that deadline, then senators would take up Bernstein’s House version, and, if it passes in the Senate, a smaller group of House and Senate members would need to negotiate a compromise to send to Gov. Henry McMaster’s desk.

After her experience, Stewart believes parents should not have to choose between spending time with their new child or making sure they are financially able to support their growing family.

“Although this bill can’t help me because I’ve already been through it, I’m just prayerful that it will help the future state employees that are going through this,” she said.

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