By Melissa K. Walker, NC Department of Justice
As I sat in my hospital bed recovering from an emergency c-section at 28-weeks, I opened my laptop and sent emails requesting opposing counsel agree to extensions of time and continuances in several pending matters. Some were gracious and agreeable, others were not. Thankfully, the requests were ultimately granted by the court, which mooted any potential issue. Had the court not granted my requests, although I was not yet cleared to drive or lift anything heavier than my child (who weighed three pounds at that point), I would have been required to get dressed in a suit and appear in court. Let’s be honest folks -- mesh postpartum underwear is not courtroom attire. Although potentially comical, my situation was not uncommon. Going forward, this situation will be much less likely based on recent advancements in parental leave rights. These recent developments will help to ease some of the burden and uncertainty brought on by parenthood.
The first advancement stems from Executive Order No. 95 signed by Governor Roy Cooper on May 23, 2019. Executive Order No. 95 provides eight weeks of paid parental leave for eligible state employees of any North Carolina department, agency, board or commission under the Governor’s oversight. The Department of Justice, through an Office of State Human Resources Paid Parental Leave Pilot Program, adopted Governor Cooper’s Executive Order effective September 1, 2019. The Administrative Office of the Courts and the Office of Administrative Hearings have also voluntarily agreed to provide paid parental leave to eligible employees. As of August 13, 2019, other agencies that voluntarily agreed to provide paid parental leave to eligible employees included: the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, the Office of the Commissioner of Banks, the Office of the Secretary of State, the Office of the State Auditor, the Office of the State Controller, and the Department of Public Instruction.
The Office of the State Treasurer, led by State Treasurer Dale R. Folwell, and the Department of Labor, led by Labor Commissioner Cherie Berry, elected not to offer paid parental leave. A spokesperson for the Department of Labor was quoted in the News & Observer as saying, “Labor Commissioner Cherie Berry ‘feels that there are sufficient leave programs already available to state employees to address such absences.’” The Department of Insurance, the State Education Lottery, UNC System, and the Community College System Office were still evaluating participation as of August 13, 2019. At the time of the entry of Executive Order No. 95 by Governor Cooper, five states, including Rhode Island, California, New Jersey, New York, and Washington, mandated paid family leave to both public and private employees. Eight states including Delaware, Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Maryland, Ohio, Missouri, and Virginia, provide parental leave to state employees.
According to Governor Cooper’s Executive Order No. 95 Fact Sheet,
Paid parental leave has been shown to promote mental and physical family health, increase worker retention, improve worker productivity and morale and reduce the demand on the social safety net by reducing the likelihood that working parents must apply for taxpayer-funded benefits. Paid parental leave can also reduce gender inequities in the workplace and at home, where women are more likely to bear the burden of unpaid caregiving responsibilities on top of their careers. Furthermore, research suggests that babies born to mothers with paid parental leave are less likely to be born prematurely and more likely to be born at a healthy weight, and children whose parents have access to parental leave are more likely to attend well care visits and exhibit fewer health problems. When paid parental leave is available, women who give birth are less likely to experience postpartum depression and men are more likely to be involved fathers.
Prior to the entry of Executive Order No. 95 and its adoption by multiple state agencies, options for paid parental leave were limited. Employees could use accumulated vacation and sick days, if available, or rely on the kindness of strangers to donate leave in response to a Voluntary Shared Leave Request. Taking unpaid leave was another option. Fortunately, with the adoption of the Paid Parental Leave policy, parents can now bond with their new child without having to worry about using saved or donated leave or taking leave without pay.
In addition to the advancement in paid parental leave, lawyers across the State are also benefiting from a recent rule change that now allows attorneys to designate up to 12 weeks of secured leave when a child is born or adopted. The North Carolina Supreme Court, led by Chief Justice Cheri Beasley, amended Rule 26 of the General Rules of Practice and Rule 33.1 of the Rules of Appellate Procedure to allow an additional 12 weeks of secured leave to be designated in the 24 weeks after the birth or adoption of the attorney’s child. Therefore, if a child is born or adopted in a two-attorney household, the 12-week period of secured leave could be used consecutively to ensure the primary care of the child was provided by a parent during the first six months of the child’s birth or adoption. Moreover, this 12-week period is in addition to the three weeks of secured leave available in a calendar year, for any purpose.
Secured leave is defined as a complete calendar week period, designated by an attorney, within which trial and appellate courts will not hold a proceeding in the attorney’s cases. Therefore, while in-court appearances will not be required by the newly amended secured leave rules, deadlines for filing notices of appeal, as well as the submission of briefs, and records, are not impacted by the change. However, as the amended rules encourage courts to adopt a flexible approach to secured leave, hopefully the appellate courts will also be flexible with requests for extension of time when deadlines fall during a secured-leave period.
While Chrissy Teigen and Amy Schumer can pull off public appearances in postpartum mesh underwear, thankfully now North Carolina attorneys won’t have to endure that experience in the courtroom!