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Bridget Degnen

Cook County Commissioner Bridget Degnen is spearheading a measure that would provide far more paid time off for parental leave for county employees.

Tyler Pasciak LaRiviere

Cook County employees could soon receive 12 weeks of paid parental leave

Cook County government is considering a policy shift to offer its roughly 19,000 employees up to 12 weeks of fully paid leave.

The new rules would provide far more paid leave to far more workers for the birth of a newborn, surrogates or for those who adopt or foster a child.

Current parental leave policy offers county workers a wide range in time off, depending on whether the birth is surgical or not, whether they are the birthing parent or whether they are adopting. Employees can then use paid sick and vacation time to extend their leaves. On average, county employees come back to work after about seven weeks — perhaps before they are emotionally or physically ready, said Cook County Commissioner Bridget Degnen, who is spearheading the measure to extend parental leave. In some cases, workers might take leave for at least a few weeks with no paycheck.

“If you want to foster a positive relationship with your employees and ensure that they are 100% productive, then you need to ensure that they have enough time after a huge event like birthing, adopting or fostering a child that they’ll only do very few times in their life,” Degnen said.

On Thursday, commissioners referred to a committee a measure that would direct the county to implement the new parental leave policy. The board is expected to take up a vote in June.

Paid leave currently costs the county an estimated $2.1 million a year in salary and payroll tax, a county spokesman said. The new policy is estimated to cost almost three times more — nearly $6 million a year. That includes more overtime needed to cover employees taking longer leaves than they can under the current policy.

Degnen harkened back to her own experience having her son, who is now 17, when she was an assistant attorney in the Illinois Attorney General’s office. When she had her baby, Degnen said she patched together four weeks of paid leave, disability time and unpaid time off.

“Regardless if you have a surgical or non-surgical birth … you’re still recovering. You’re still bleeding. You’re trying to figure out how to manage a new baby,” Degnen said. “To expect somebody to come back and be fully attuned for their work day after adding to their family or starting a new family … it just doesn’t seem like the most pragmatic way to support your highest and best resources, which is your employees.”

Nearly 40% of Cook County workers currently take less than 12 weeks of leave, according to the county.

Currently employees can earn their full salary but in a limited amount: up to four weeks or 20 work days for the birthing parent who has a non-surgical delivery, and up to six weeks for a surgical delivery, such as a cesarean. The parent or partner who doesn’t give birth — and employees who adopt a child — are eligible for up to two weeks of pay, or 10 days of work. They can use sick or vacation time to get paid for more days off.

The proposed new policy would provide 100% pay for up to 12 weeks to all full-time county employees. They must have been employed by the county for at least 12 consecutive months and meet the following criteria: be the parent giving birth, the non-birthing biological parent, the “intended” parent of a gestational surrogacy, a parent who adopted a child or is fostering a child 17 years old or younger.

Employees with less than 12 consecutive months on the county payroll would need to contact their managers to see what other leaves they are eligible for.

If the Cook County board of commissioners approves it, the new policy would take effect July 1, though it still must be negotiated with more than a dozen unions that represent county employees.

Degnen said she is working to mirror the parental paid leave policy at the Forest Preserves of Cook County, which is a separate unit of government.

Kristen Schorsch covers public health and Cook County for WBEZ.

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