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Rep. Elizabeth Weight writes, "It's time for the state of Utah to give its employees paid parental leave."

It’s time for the state of Utah to give its employees paid parental leave.

I am not the first Utah legislator to propose paid leave for new parents. For years, our state employees have been hoping for this support from their “family-friendly” state. With my 2019 bill, the offices of the governor and lieutenant governor are now on board. That’s good. I’m glad that they, along with several of my Republican colleagues, are finally coming around to this smart policy that Democrats have long championed.

There are solid reasons behind the movement for paid parental leave. It makes good practical policy. That’s why other conservative states have already implemented it. In May, North Carolina’s governor announced that new parents who are full-time state employees will have paid leave after a birth, adoption or foster child placement. In the overall analysis, the estimated $3.5 million annual benefit is a drop in the bucket when it means keeping quality, productive state employees.

Last November, Kansas’ governor took similar action for his state workers. Indiana’s governor announced his parental leave policy in late 2017, noting, “This new policy supports families and healthy kids by ensuring parents — both women and men — get the time they need to bond and adjust to a new baby or adopted child. This policy sends a strong message to attract more top talent to state government service.” A few months before that, Missouri Gov. Eric Greitens and his wife enthusiastically made joint statements to announce their state’s new parental leave policy. And Arkansas passed maternity leave for their employees over two years ago. Now 10 states have paid parental leave for their workers and five require it of private employers. They see that these programs are cost-saving rather than a financial drain.

It’s contradictory for Utah to continue calling itself a “family-friendly” state without paid parental leave. The first months of a child’s life are critical for both the child and the parents. Families need time together to rest, to nurse and to bond. Mothers who have access to leave can have a positive impact on their children’s health and development, research shows, and this can even impact their child’s long-term educational and earnings outcomes. Those are some reasons that paid leave is given a “double score” in findings for a January financial publication in which Utah is ranked 17th for places to raise a family.

The reality is that numerous indicators illustrate why paid parental leave makes good economic sense for our state.

Data consistently shows that workers looking to start families want jobs with flexibility and family-friendly benefits. Paid leave will allow our state agencies to retain skilled workers without bearing the considerable costs of recruiting and training new employees. Any economist will tell you that higher employee satisfaction leads to better productivity.

Paid parental leave is good for both men and women. It increases the likelihood that a mother will continue her job after having a child. And policies that allow fathers paternity leave mean they have more flexibility and time away from their work to actively raise their children.

Some worry that paid parental leave policies would burden state agencies and staff who must pick up the slack while colleagues are on leave. But other states and businesses with parental leave programs haven’t seen significant problems. In an evaluation of California’s program after it became the first state to require paid family leave for all employees in 2004, the study found that “the vast majority of employers reported that it has had minimal impact on their business operations,” and, indeed, that “mothers with one- to three-year old children who had access to paid leave tend to be more productive and committed upon returning to their jobs, putting in an extra 3.5 to 6 hours of work per week.” The authors observe “in a time when so many states are dealing with deficits by slashing services, paid time off to care for their families when the need arises is a highly valued benefit that states can provide without affecting their fiscal positions.”

Polls show that Americans overwhelmingly back the concept of paid family leave: A 2017 Pew Research Center study found that 82 percent of Americans supported mandatory paid leave for mothers after a birth or adoption.

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The same is true, of course, for Utahns. The University of Utah, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and Salt Lake City are among local employers that have adopted paid parental leave policies in the past few years.

The economic evidence in support of paid parental leave is substantial and increasing, even though the accounting isn’t simply about paychecks. When we sustain employees as they become parents, they become even better, long-term employees. When our state exemplifies what it means to be an exceptional employer and upholds our “family-friendly” logic with our state employees, everyone benefits. It’s time.