Parental leave: Parents stand in front of homewith child in the background
Crystal and Chris Martin stand outside their home, Sunday, July 19, 2020 in Burton, Mich., as one of their children looks on. (Tammy Webber/AP)

ATLANTA – In the weeks following the birth of her firstborn child, Georgia high school teacher Melody Montgomery’s world revolved around the quiet moments spent with her daughter sleeping peacefully in her lap.

Trifling household chores fell by the wayside, as every second not spent bonding with her new baby felt to Montgomery a second wasted. But invaluable as these moments were, they did not come without a significant and costly tradeoff.

“The whole time I knew that I wasn’t getting paid for being gone,” Montgomery said. “So that was kind of looming over me.”

Montgomery spent eight weeks away from her classroom on maternity leave, and like most Georgia employees did not receive any compensation. Her husband’s paycheck became the lone source of income, and the new family quickly found themselves in a financial crisis amidst the already daunting task of raising a newborn baby.

“It took us a long time to recover from that,” Montgomery said.

This burden is familiar for new families across the state, as paid parental leave is not mandated by law. Georgia employees are only entitled to federally provided unpaid leave, which usually covers six or 12 weeks, depending on eligibility. For almost 250,000 teachers and state employees, however, that could be about to change.

“Something is better than nothing,” said Sen. Jennifer Jordan, D-Atlanta. “But I think we can do so much better by the people of this state.”

Rep. Houston Gaines, R-Athens, has introduced a bill to the General Assembly that would provide three weeks of paid parental leave for eligible state employees, which includes thousands of public-school teachers, state-agency employees and university staffers. If it passes, the bill would make Georgia one of only a dozen or so states to provide paid family leave in any capacity, according to the National Conference on State Legislatures.

If passed, eligible employees would be entitled to three weeks of paid leave following the birth or adoption of a new child, or the arrival of a child in foster care. For employee organizations across the state, it represents a significant step in the right direction.

“Paid parental leave allows parents to focus on meeting children’s needs at a critical time for families,” said Craig Harper, executive director of the Professional Association of Georgia Educators, in a statement.

Bipartisan momentum

The House passed Gaines’ bill last year with overwhelming bipartisan support, but it failed to cross the finish line in the Senate. The bill passed in the House again Tuesday by a vote of 155-2, and Gaines is confident it will clear the final hurdles this year and wind up on the governor’s desk to be signed.

While the bill is popular, Democrats in the Legislature have criticized it for not including more weeks or provisions for paid medical leave as well. The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists recommends at least six weeks of paid leave for new parents, and Democrats in both chambers are eager to push for more.

“Something is better than nothing,” said Sen. Jennifer Jordan, D-Atlanta. “But I think we can do so much better by the people of this state.”

Gaines, while open to more weeks and benefits in the future, pointed out in a committee hearing that the bill did not pass in its current form last year, and that a more expansive bill could harm its chances. He also emphasized that the three weeks provided by the bill can be combined with any time off an employee may have already accumulated. For now, his priority is to simply get something on the books in the current session, and worry about any additions as needed later.

Democrats in the Senate have introduced their own bill calling for six weeks of compensated family and medical leave, but it is unlikely to move through the Republican controlled chamber. Cosponsors of the effort recognize that reality, and are prepared to welcome Gaines’ bill for the sake of getting something substantive passed for thousands of working Georgians.

“When it comes over to the Senate side, we need to support that bill,” said Sen. Sally Harrell, D-Atlanta.

Montgomery is glad that the issue is being addressed by lawmakers, but still laments how soon after giving birth she had to return to work. She thinks new parents need far more than six weeks of protected time off, and feels an abbreviated leave impacted not only her bonding with her child, but her ability to do well by her students when she returned to the classroom.

“It’s so hard to focus on all these 16-year-olds in my class when I have a 2-month-old with someone else,” Montgomery said.

Lisa Morgan, president of the Georgia Association of Educators, agrees that an early return to work for teachers ultimately harms learning in the classroom. But considering the limited benefits currently in place, she strongly endorses Gaines’ bill as written, and applauds it for making progress on a system she views as deeply lacking.

“As educators, we very much work in a situation every day where every step in the right direction is a positive,” Morgan said.

Despite the politics and imperfections, Montgomery just hopes the Legislature will take meaningful steps toward a parental leave solution soon. She is expecting her second child later this year, and worries her family will once again be overwhelmed with financial struggles and uncertainty if something doesn’t change.

“I don’t know how we are going to do this,” Montgomery said. “But we’re going to have to figure it out because we don’t have another choice.”

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