Lawmakers approve Gov. Kristi Noem-led expansion to family leave for state employees
The change increases coverage from 60% of base salary to 100%, and extends the duration from a maximum of eight weeks to 12 weeks.
PIERRE, S.D. — Around 13,000 state employees in South Dakota will be eligible for an expanded paid family leave program by the end of this month, a policy win for Gov. Kristi Noem following a legislative session that saw a much larger paid family leave proposal rejected by lawmakers.
During the May 2 meeting of the South Dakota Legislature’s Rules Review Committee, lawmakers unanimously approved the expanded leave program, which will now fully cover up to 12 weeks of leave for state employees following the birth or adoption of a child, as long as the employee has been employed by the state for more than six months.
“I want to make sure that South Dakota continues to be the best state in the nation to live, work, and raise a family — and that starts with making sure our state employees have the resources they need to care for their families,” Noem, who proposed the rule change in March, wrote in a press release following the decision. “By expanding South Dakota’s paid family leave opportunities, we will give our state’s hardworking moms and dads the chance to bond with a new child during the precious first few weeks after birth or adoption.”
Prior to the rule change, the state’s family leave policy covered 24 hours per week, or 60% of the employee’s salary, for up to eight weeks, though an employee taking leave could use vacation or sick days to increase the covered portion of his or her salary.
The rule change will take effect 20 days after the rules review committee’s approval is confirmed to the Secretary of State.
Eric Ollila, the executive director of the South Dakota State Employees Organization, praised the joint action by the state’s executive and legislative branches in enacting this change.
“Very favorable, very positive reactions,” he said. “Even state employees without families or who are not planning on having any more family members, they’re positive about it, too. I think everybody's aware that it's a good investment for employees in the state.”
Mallori Barnett, an attorney with the South Dakota Bureau of Human Resources who handled the bulk of questions from lawmakers during the hearing, made the case at the rules hearing that the change would make the state a “more competitive employer.”
One question on the policy’s fiscal impact — which the state estimated as negligible due to a shift from vacation and sick leave to administrative leave — came from Sen. Jeff Mehlhaff, of Pierre, who noted that the increased accumulation of vacation and sick leave could mean higher payouts upon retirement.
State employees are reimbursed for accumulated vacation days and one-quarter of accumulated sick days upon the end of their employment, though both categories have a maximum allowed collection of hours.
“That’s just a really hard number to calculate as far as the payout for employees that maybe are not using the sick and vacation leave but then they get the payout later,” Barnett said of what impact this change might have on those disbursements.
However, she added that the state “will be paying out the same regardless of whether there's this additional paid family leave or not.”
Ollila said he expects lawmakers to monitor the cost and implementation moving forward.
During the legislative session this past winter, Noem backed a dual package of family leave proposals, headlined by the creation of an insurance group policy allowing interested private employers and local governments in the state to offer employees between 60% and 80% of their wages for up to 12 weeks, depending on how the potential bidding process unfolded.
A second policy looked to spend $20 million over four years in order to incentivize participation by South Dakota businesses in the proposed leave program.
Both policies failed in different stages of the committee process.
Outside of paid family leave, the rules review committee also approved an increase to the over-16 admission cost at the South Dakota State Fair from $6 to $10, as well as a set of increases to several other fair costs.
Jason Harward is a Report for America corps reporter who writes about state politics in South Dakota. Contact him at 605-301-0496 or email@example.com.