When a full-time city employee gave birth to her son last year, she used two weeks of vacation she had saved up to care for him. But to spend more time at home with him, she could only afford to take off four additional weeks without pay.
So she came back to work six weeks after a cesarean section.
“As a new mother taking care of an infant, you’re still sore and completely drained. But you’re expected to just bounce back,” said the woman, who asked that her name not be used. “It’s absurd.”
If her baby had been born two years later, she might have had a different experience: Virginia Beach is poised to become the first South Hampton Roads city to add paid leave for new parents on its payroll.
Human Resources Director Regina Hilliard recommended recently that the city start offering three weeks paid maternity leave as well as two weeks for the non-birthing parent and those who adopt.
In Virginia Beach – one of the largest employers in the region, with more than 6,500 workers – women make up about 40 percent of the city’s full-time staff.
Most officials, including City Council members, say the new policy is long overdue.
“This is something absolutely essential,” Councilwoman Rosemary Wilson said. “I’m shocked we don’t have it.”
More details, like when the policy would take effect, are expected to be worked out early next year, according to a memo sent to city employees.
The amount of leave the city would offer falls in the middle of what is offered by other government entities. All branches of the military offer 12 weeks paid leave for new mothers and 10 days for fathers. In Fairfax County, government employees are given two weeks off for the birth of a child.
Durham County, N.C., which employs about 2,000 workers, started paying new parents 12 weeks full pay last year.
In most cities that offer paid leave for parents, the range is between six and eight weeks, according to Jeff Hayes, program director for the Institute for Women’s Policy Research.
Hayes said Virginia Beach’s plan to give a shorter amount of time for fathers and adoptive parents is “possibly pragmatic.” In August, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission sued Estee Lauder for discrimination for giving less paid time off to men who had recently become parents.
Some taxpayers don’t think paid maternity leave is a perk that should be given to government workers.
Tom Nicholson, who owns a company that manages about 50 self-storage properties, said he believes the city’s new policy will hurt his ability to hire employees.
He said he cannot afford to offer paid parental leave to employees, but tacks on other benefits like half-days on Friday and a chef-prepared meal once a month. Seventy percent of his employees are women.
Nicholson doesn’t live in Virginia Beach, but he pays real estate taxes on properties in the city.
“It irritates me that the city would use my money to steal my employees,” he said.
Nicholson worries that the policy will spread to other cities like Norfolk, where his corporate office is based.
The added parental leave would mostly come at no additional cost to the city, Hilliard said. That’s because Virginia Beach already pays the salaries and would not need to hire temporary employees to fill the void.
Vice Mayor Louis Jones said he doesn’t think the leave that Virginia Beach plans to offer will be adequate, but City Manager Dave Hansen called it a “crawl, walk, run” approach.
The employee who had her baby in 2016 said that even six weeks leave wasn’t enough. She said was exhausted. Her son wasn’t sleeping through the night yet, and she didn’t have time to get him on a schedule.
On top of that, she had to push a chair into a utility closet at work to pump breast milk in private.
The city is also trying to make its work environment more accommodating to breastfeeding mothers.
The new City Hall is being planned with dedicated lactation rooms, as is the Parks and Recreation Administration Building, which is expected to be completed in January. Another lactation room is being added to the Virginia Aquarium’s main building.
Several recreation centers have assisted-care rooms where women can nurse or pump, according to city spokeswoman Julie Hill. Construction on one for Great Neck Recreation Center will begin next spring and be ready for use in fall 2018.
“This is certainly a feature that is currently being considered in all new facility designs and in all restroom renovations,” Hill said.