Now that Susan Hawk is back to work as Dallas County's DA after seeking treatment for clinical depression, she should offer her prosecutors paid maternity leave. Because why not? It's a decent thing to do, but even better for Hawk, it would be a badass political move. Hawk is the first female district attorney in Dallas, and her legacy right now is loosely divided between people who say she is brave and people who say she is a liar. Creating a historic new maternity leave policy for Dallas County employees would definitely make her look more like a brave person than a liar.
The best reason why not to do it is that other employers don't bother to do it, either. In the private sector, only 12 percent of U.S. workers get paid family leave, government research shows. In Dallas, public employees' parental benefits are slim across the board. City of Dallas workers with new babies are encouraged to use their paid sick days. "We have a very generous sick leave policy (96 hours per year with a 1,440 maximum accumulation)," Dallas' human resources director Molly Caroll wrote in an email earlier this year to council member Philip Kingston. "Employees can (and do) use this time when they go out on leave associated with a birth/adoption." That policy sounds pretty OK, the way Carroll describes it. But when Kingston later crowd-sourced city workers to make a list of things that they said would improve their quality of life, maternity leave came in at number two.
In Dallas County, where Hawk and her prosecutors are employed, the policy is similar. County employees get 12 sick days a year and two to four weeks of vacation, writes Dallas County human resources director Urmit Graham. Once employees use up their paid sick days or paid vacation days, they can then take a longer absence under the Family and Medical Leave Act, the federal law that allows workers 12 weeks off from work. Sounds great, except that those 12 weeks are unpaid.
"If you are on maternity leave, we allow you to use sick leave first," so that the employee can still get paid, explained Graham when we spoke to him on the phone in February, back when I started researching our local maternity leave policies but then lost interest. After all, if it's normal to expect workers to just blow through their sick days or vacation time if they want to still collect a check while caring for their new baby, that's just the way it is.
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But of course, it doesn't have to be that way. In every other developed nation, it's not, a statistic made worse by the fact that the United States is also the most advanced economy to not guarantee workers paid vacation time. (Even the impoverished nation of Malawi promises their citizens an 18-day vacation from work).
Hawk has already shown us that she has an unorthodox way of taking leaves. Before Hawk made the announcement that she was suffering from depression, she had been out of the office for three weeks with no explanation to the public. Her staff initially claimed she was on a "summer break" until, three weeks later, Hawk finally told the truth on Facebook. “For the past three weeks I have taken a break from work in an attempt to work through a serious episode of depression. ... I’ve decided that it would be in my best interest, and the best interest of the DA’s office for me to take a four-week, unpaid leave of absence starting today and give this illness the professional attention it deserves.”
Her supervisors and others quickly congratulated Hawk for being brave. Sure, her spokespeople had initially lied to reporters about the reason for her absence, something that might have gotten her fired if she wasn't the district attorney. But how about we just agree to forgive Hawk for all of that if she devises some sort of maternity leave policy for her prosecutors? Think about it: The Texas media circuit is already using the Hawk controversy to discuss all sorts of related issues like mental illness stigma, medical disabilities and the treatment of women in power. What better way for Hawk to capitalize on all of that attention and spin it in her favor, than to introduce a bold policy that would offer assistance to other women in power?
The specifics of how the policy should work we will leave to Hawk's staffers to figure out. I still haven't heard back from Mari Woodlief or Messina Madson, the people functioning as Hawk's sort-of spokespeople, but who only answer our messages some of the time. That's OK. If Susan Hawk creates a historic maternity leave policy for even some of Dallas County's employees, we will all have better things to talk about than the communication failures of her office.