Paid Leave: A giant first step for Arkansas

Today Governor Asa Hutchinson signed into law a bill SB125 (now Act182) that expands access to paid maternity leave for Arkansas state employees. This monumental change puts Arkansas ahead of most other states, especially those in our region, in providing access to paid maternity leave.

The bill provides four weeks of paid maternity leave to state employees. The change is unlikely to cost the state anything because it draws from an already existent “catastrophic leave bank,” which has more than enough time to sustain the inclusion of paid maternity leave, according to the bill sponsors. The bank of time comes from employees who donate their leftover leave time.

This is wonderful news for women who work for the state. It does, however, leave out other private sector employees who would stand to gain the same health, emotional, and financial benefits from this type of program. That isn’t to undermine the significant progress that this legislation represents, but provides some possibilities for future legislation.

What is most encouraging about this change is that the bill sponsors are clearly forward looking. A sponsor of the bill, Representative Vaught, described it as “a first step” and said she “looked forward to working with Representative Tucker for us to find more ways for more people to get this same exact benefit.” That sends a positive message for the future financial stability and health of all Arkansas families.

If Arkansas continues this progress to value and support new parents, we could see other positive legislation that increases the amount of leave time. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends a minimum of 12 weeks of maternity leave, but the more the better. We could also see bills that expand access to fathers. Including paternity leave mitigates some of the unfortunate gender discrimination in hiring practices that can go along with only providing parental leave to mothers. Finally, we could find a way to make sure all new parents, not just those working for the state, have access to the paid leave they need.

Only a few states (like California, New Jersey, and Rhode Island) provide broad, state-mandated paid leave programs. Although Arkansas’s legislation is limited compared to those states, it still puts us at the forefront of paid leave legislation, especially among other southern states. The sponsor of the bill, Senator Missy Irvin, was correct when she said “In passing Senate Bill 125 we are leading the nation on this important pro-family and pro-woman issue.”