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Arizona employees are now eligible for 12 weeks of paid family leave

More than 34,000 Arizona employees with new family members are now eligible to get up to 12 weeks off with pay — and that immediately covers those whose newborns, adoptions and foster placements occurred as far back as the first of the year.

The Department of Administration, under direction from Gov. Katie Hobbs, implemented a "pilot project'' on Thursday creating an exception from existing rules which govern the amount of paid leave now available. That is based on the number of years of service.

Instead, each new parent also will be entitled to up to 12 weeks off for any new baby in the house during a 12-month period.

It doesn't have to all be taken at the time of birth, or even in consecutive weeks, as long as the employee works a total of 12 weeks sometime during that 12-month period.

And it even is structured so that couples who both work for the state each can take up to 12 weeks off, essentially ensuring that one parent could be on leave for nearly half a year.

The move essentially is an extension of benefits available under the federal Family Medical Leave Act. It provides for up to 12 weeks of leave for specified family and medical purposes -- not just involving a new child -- without a worker fearing loss of the job. But that leave is unpaid, meaning it effectively is available only to those who can afford to be without income for three months.

What also is changing is the amount of paid sick leave that state workers can accumulate to use not only for personal reasons but also things like taking a child to a doctor.

That is now capped at 40 hours in any year. The new program boosts that to 480 hours — 12 weeks.

Hobbs, in a prepared statement, said the changes fulfill a commitment she made after taking office in January to extend paid family leave benefits. And she said this is about more than helping the affected workers.

"I believe that a workplace that supports its working families is one that is best equipped to serve the people of Arizona,'' the governor said.

That sentiment was echoed by Elizabeth Alvorado-Thorson, Hobbs' hand-picked director of the Department of Administration.

"These new paid family leave benefits allow more flexibility for state employees and prioritize important bonding time for families,'' she said in her own prepared statement. "It will also strengthen the state's retention and recruitment efforts and keep the state competitive for top talent.''

Hobbs gets to do this without legislative permission because of state personnel rules.

They specifically allow the Department of Administration to "implement a temporary pilot project to improve efficiency, productivity, or accountability in the state personnel system.'' And there appear to be no limits on the kind of changes that can be put into place.

"The project may include an activity or procedure that is not in accordance with these rules,'' the provision states. About the only restriction is that the pilot program can last no more than two years.

And after that?

Megan Rose, spokeswoman for the Department of Administration, said if the state wants to continue the program her agency will have to craft a permanent change in the rule. That would, in turn, have to be approved by the Governor's Regulatory Review Council following public hearings.

More to the point, none of this requires legislative approval. Rose said lawmakers already have given permission for pilot projects like this.

Not all state employees are going to get the benefits.

The change affects only those within the state personnel system. That excludes those working for the state's three universities, the courts and the Legislature.

What it also excludes, according to Rose, is the state Department of Public Safety which has its own personnel system.

But even among those within the state system, paid parental leave will be available only to those who have worked for a state agency for at least 12 months during the past seven years. They also would have had to work a minimum of 1,250 hours during the past year; full-time employment generally is considered 2,080 hours a year.

There are some other conditions — including that this isn't simply an excuse for a new parent to get a vacation. The rules for the pilot project say paid parental leave is available "as long as an employee has continuing parental role with the child whose birth was the basis for the leave entitlement.''

They also preclude state workers from stacking the new paid benefits with the FMLA leave to give employees 24 weeks away without fear of losing a job: Any paid time off will also reduce the available time for unpaid leave.

And the program is not available for workers prior to the birth or placement of a child. Instead, anyone needing time off for medical or legal reasons would instead have to use their regular accumulated paid leave balances or take leave without pay.

There also are provisions giving state agencies the ability to defer or limit paid parental leave "based on operational requirements to meet the agency's statutorily required mission.''

Matthew Casey has won Edward R. Murrow awards for hard news and sports reporting since he joined KJZZ as a senior field correspondent in 2015.