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Iowa Legislature considers bill on adoption leave benefits

DES MOINES — When Shelley Skuster and her husband adopted their daughter, Olivia, in 2013, the northeast Iowa couple had no paid time off from their jobs.

The Skusters had considered potential challenges as they went through months of adoption paperwork. But time-off entitlements was not among those; her pregnant co-workers at a local television station received paid time off. Skuster ended up using limited vacation time and had nearby family take care of Olivia.

“I’m a mom in every sense of the way that my colleague is a mom who gave birth in a hospital,” she said from her home in Waverly. “When the state and in return the employer does not recognize that and doesn’t treat it the same, it’s frustrating.”

A bill making its first appearance in the Iowa Legislature aims to alleviate that. It would essentially require an employer that offers some forms of paid time off or other entitlements for the birth of a child to do the same for an employee who’s adopted a child in the past 12 months. The bill specifies that a business will not have to follow the rule if they don’t already offer such benefits to parents with biological children.

If the bill becomes law, Iowa could become one of just a handful of states with concrete language about time-off entitlements.

The Senate passed the measure on Thursday 37-9, a sign of bipartisan support. Rep. Joel Fry, R-Osceola, hopes that’s a good sign and is seeking support in the House.

“We could be a national leader in something like this,” said Fry, who has adopted five children.

Still, there are reservations about the financial impact on businesses. Sen. Dennis Guth, R-Klemme, spoke on the Senate floor about when he and his wife adopted a 10-year-old girl.

“I don’t think it’s our purpose as government to be sticking our nose in everything that happens in every company across the state,” he said.

But such laws could help businesses form a loyal workforce, says Rita Soronen, CEO of the national nonprofit Dave Thomas Foundation for Adoption. “It’s the right workforce thing to do in matters of efficiency and effectiveness and competiveness,” she said.

Currently, an adoptive parent in Iowa — like in all other states — can use the Family Medical Leave Act, a federal law that lets employees at a business with 50 or more workers take up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave for a newborn, adopted or foster child without losing their job.

FMLA is not applicable at businesses with fewer employees nor does it apply to a worker who’s been at a job for less than a year. Skuster fell into that category when she adopted her first child. Earlier this year, when she and her husband adopted a second daughter, Kendra, they again relied on family to take care of the girls.

Plus, taking unpaid time off is not always feasible for working parents, she said.

Federal law doesn’t require workers to have paid time off for the birth or adoption of a child; it depends on the employer. Only three states — California, New Jersey and Rhode Island — require employers to offer some paid family and medical leave, though it’s funded through employee-paid payroll taxes. More than 10 states have their own standards for time-off entitlements, but they’re similar to the federal law and remain unpaid, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Erin Kierman, a television anchor in Des Moines, attempted to adopt a child last summer with her husband. The adoption fell through, but Kierman was alarmed about her limited benefits and went on to lobby for the legislation.

“People just kind of throw their hands in the air and feel like, ‘Well this is just the way the system is and we have to work within the system,’” she said. “And no one ever thinks to say, ‘Well why is it this way? And should it be this way?”

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