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President Barack Obama and Sen. Barbara Mikulski at Charmington's Cafe.
President Barack Obama and Sen. Barbara Mikulski at Charmington's Cafe. (Kenneth K. Lam / Baltimore Sun)

President Barack Obama signed an executive order in 2015 directing agencies to allow federal workers to take six weeks of paid leave to care for a newborn child and urged states and cities to follow suit.

Progress has been slow, but momentum is building.

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Last week, New York became one of a handful of U.S. cities to move to grant six weeks of paid leave, following the lead of Pittsburgh, Kansas City, Mo., and Austin, Texas. Other cities have adopted smaller measures, while several financial firms and tech companies have begun to offer generous leave packages that, in the case of Netflix, could last a year.

As of Friday, M&T Bank, which employs 2,500 people in Maryland, provides 12 weeks of paid leave to new parents, about double what was offered previously.

But many municipalities have not made similar moves, largely because of financial constraints. Washington state approved a paid paternal leave program in 2007 but has been unable to fund it. And while the U.S. Department of Labor has started giving grants to cities to study how to implement paid parental leave, legislation introduced in the Senate to pay for federally mandated leave appears to have stalled.

In Maryland, many state and local government workers can use sick leave to take time off after the birth of a child, officials and unions said. There has been little discussion about making changes.

While Maryland lawmakers introduced bills in 2015 to give state workers six weeks of leave, the measures failed to advance beyond preliminary stages.

Advocates for expanded family leave policies say they remain optimistic.

"I am heartened because these things are all connected, and each city that does it sparks another to do so," said Ellen Bravo, director of Family Values @ Work, a nonprofit coalition pushing for paid parental leave. "But it'll be slow; it won't be a stampede. There are real financial or political challenges in many places."

In his State of the Union Address, Obama noted that the United States is "the only advanced country on earth that doesn't guarantee paid sick leave or paid maternity leave to our workers."

"That forces too many parents to make [a] gut-wrenching choice," Obama said.

The president did not create a new leave allowance but told federal agencies to let employees use up to six weeks of sick leave even if they had not yet accrued that much.

Maryland's state government could make a similar change, but a spokeswoman for Republican Gov. Larry Hogan said it would have to be negotiated with employee unions.

A spokeswoman for Harford County said employees there can use sick leave, which rolls over from year to year, and personal leave to take time off for a new child.

"We think this is a flexible benefits package that lets employees choose their paid family leave," Cindy Mumby said.

Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski sponsored a bill in September to create a separate family leave policy for federal workers, but it has made no progress in the Senate.

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"No working parent should be forced to choose between caring for their family and keeping their job," the Maryland Democrat said at the time. "This legislation will provide a critical lifeline to working moms and dads to provide the care and support infants and children need."

Estimating the cost of such legislation is difficult, because many employees can use their sick leave for infant care and would not necessarily be away from work longer.

But the Congressional Budget Office concluded in 2009 that a family leave bill could cost the government more than $200 million a year. The Maryland Department of Legislative Services said if 500 employees a year used the six-week leave proposed in the 2015 bills it would cost about $3.2 million.

In New York, Mayor Bill de Blasio said he will sign an executive order to give paid leave to 20,000 nonunion municipal workers. De Blasio said the leave will apply to new mothers and fathers as well as to workers who adopt a child or become a foster parent.

Sadye Campoamor, who is six months' pregnant and works for the city's Department of Education, said the new policy would enable her to bond with her child and help her avoid taking three months of unpaid leave, which is all federal law now provides.

"The thought of having no pay for three months was terrifying me," she said. "Between student loans and living expenses, I was honestly not sure how we would do it."

Previously, those workers did not have paid parental leave and were forced to use sick days and vacation days. Administration officials urged the city's much larger unionized workforce, numbering about 300,000 employees, to adopt the benefit through collective bargaining. (Some of New York's most powerful unions signaled immediate support for the measure.) To cover the $15 million cost, the nonunion employees will give back two vacation days, and the city will rescind a small portion of a planned 2017 raise.

Other U.S. cities also bolstered their plans this year. Chicago now offers four weeks leave for vaginal births and six weeks for C-sections. Boston now offers six weeks, with the first two weeks at 100 percent pay, the next two at 75 percent and the final two at 50 percent. Other cities offer paid leave benefits that kick in only after some sick days are exhausted. (San Francisco has the most expansive program, offering 12 weeks after some sick days are used.)

Three states — California, New Jersey and Rhode Island — have paid family leave policies in place, while 18 other states are considering similar measures. And lawmakers in Washington have introduced a bill that could offer the most generous leave yet: 16 weeks, fully paid.

Some municipalities have chosen not to pursue the program, believing the costs would outweigh any benefits. But Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand said the recent run of cities adopting leave programs is proof there is an appetite for federal legislation, which she is sponsoring.

"This new policy is another clear sign that cities across the country are realizing the value of family friendly workplace policies," the New York Democrat said.

Baltimore Sun reporter Ian Duncan and the Associated Press contributed to this article.

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