Seattle is progressive. Often, we take pride in being “Seattleites” over “Americans.” We’re a city made up of forward thinkers who reject social constructs or paradigms that negatively impact others, such as wage inequity fueled by race or gender. Right?? How can we be so progressive and still suffer from the worst gender wage gap in the country?
“When I was first employed, I was actually pretty surprised,” said Ben Enfield, a Structural Plans Engineer for the City of Seattle, referring to the fact that the City does not offer paid parental leave for new fathers to its employees. “[Seattle is] a pretty progressive city — it doesn’t mean there aren’t oversights.”
But next month Seattle might become one of the first cities in the country to offer paid parental leave to its male employees. A public informational meeting on the issue is planned for tonight at 6pm at the Langston Hughes Performing Arts Institute.
In early 2013, the National Partnership for Women and Families published an analysis of 2012 U.S. Census Bureau data, attributing the largest wage gap out of all the top 50 metropolitan cities in the country to Seattle, with women earning 73 cents to men’s dollar — men making an annual average of $16,343 more than women. Meanwhile, women bring in the primary income in over a third of Seattle households, many of which fall below the poverty line.
City of Seattle employee specific data didn’t look much better, so the City Council began to create a paid parental leave policy for city employees. The U.S. is one of only three countries worldwide that doesn’t have some sort of government-mandated paid parental leave.
“If we put this policy into place — which we will,” Council Member Jean Godden said, “we will be one of the very few municipalities [within the U.S.] that has such a policy.”
Godden recently helped contribute a $250,000 donation to help launch the Paid Parental Leave program. Currently, city employees must use their accrued vacation or sick time as parental leave. Women are also entitled to three months without pay for maternity leave. If the Council’s proposed plan is approved, it will apply to all City of Seattle employees, male and female, welcoming new biological or adopted family members. Godden then hopes to reach out to unions in Seattle to spread this movement across the private sector.
“It’s a good step, and there’s a reason why many countries have adopted this,” Enfield says of the policy. “It seems to benefit the gender equality issue, and it encourages families [and] people to spend more time at home with their children.”
Enfield and his husband, Chris Lydick, met on Match.com.
“The ‘Gay’ and ‘Outdoors’ Venn diagrams don’t intersect much,” Ben said, laughing. Passionate about the outdoors and family, they were married last year on top of Whistler Mountain and are in their first few months of pursuing adoption. He says the process can take anywhere from three months to nine years.
The policy would allow Enfield (as a City of Seattle employee) and his husband to both be involved in the formation of their new family by allowing them each to use paid parental leave — which his husband’s company already provides. It would also afford them the time to sort out familial structure and reenter the workforce rejuvenated and ready to work, void of financial strain.
“In a hetero-normal family, the female can take sick time — three months guaranteed time off,” Enfield says.
But even the younger, newer employees, he explains, who are often at the age of starting a family, are unable to take advantage of this, having not had time to accrue sick or vacation time to fund their leave. And in most cases, even accrued time off doesn’t come close to funding three months of leave.
The exhaustion of accrued paid leave can mean families are left without support for future child or parent sickness, and make it challenging to re-enter the workforce among colleagues that have maintained their regular schedule. Often, one parent exits the workforce to stay at home, creating a skill gap for that employee in the future and deepening the wage gap.
In 1974, Sweden was the first country to implement a parental leave policy, replacing their prior maternity leave policy with a policy that offered paid time off to all new parents, and encouraging equality in caretaking and wage regardless of sex. That was 40 years ago.
“Parental leave should be equal,” said Olivia Svennson, a 21-year-old woman from Stockholm.
Svennson says oftentimes, there is a misconception that women are fighting against men to achieve this benefit for themselves. Instead, she thinks that it is important to offer parental leave to the family collective, building stronger familial bonds and allowing the parents to feel well supported in re-entering the workforce.
But some question whether Godden and the Council’s ideas of equality match their own, suggesting that this policy overlooks racial and sexual differences. For example, there is an even larger gap between the wages of African American and Latino women and those of white, non-Hispanic men, an issue which is not specifically highlighted in the Council’s new approach to wage equity.
But Enfield is not discouraged by potential oversights in the impending decision. He says he is proud of what Godden is promoting, and thinks it will have a ripple effect, benefitting gender and race equality as well as the child-rearing and family building of LGBTQ couples.
“I look for improvement and not perfect equality,” said Enfield. “This is a good step. I wouldn’t pass good for perfect.”
Tonight, 6pm: A public informational meeting and open discussion on paid parental leave at the Langston Hughes Performing Arts Institute.