Prof's contribution to Houston Women's Commission results in big gains for paid family leave

April 15, 2022 | UHCL Staff

Merfish Women's Commission
Dr. Beth Merfish, in the pink jacket, worked alongside city council members, the vice mayor pro-tem, and representatives from HOPE, the city of Houston employees' union, to pass a new policy offering city employees paid parental leave.

Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner announced that Houston City Council would vote this week on a proposed equitable, progressive parental leave policy for city employees based on the recommendation of the Houston Women's Commission.

The policy was unanimously approved on Wednesday, April. 13.

University of Houston-Clear Lake Associate Professor of Art History Beth Matusoff Merfish, who serves as the inaugural chair of the Commission, said their goal was to look at issues affecting women in Houston and their families, specifically to explore how the COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated existing conditions.

Turner challenged the newly-appointed Commission to write policy creating the city's first paid parental leave policy.

"There are two ordinances the Council will be voting on that have resulted from our Commission's work," Merfish said. "The first is 12-week paid parental leave for any employee who has been with the City over six months. This is for parents, regardless of gender, who have either had a baby, adopted a baby, or had a foster-to-adopt placement in their home."

The plan also includes other benefits that support pregnant employees. "This is a pivotal moment for the city," said District C Council Member Abbie Kamin, who led the effort along with Merfish. "No parent should have to choose between a paycheck and caring for yourself and your family."

The second ordinance, entitled Pre-Natal and Infant Wellness Leave, provides a certain number of paid hours used per pregnancy.

"The idea is to allow pregnant employees take time instead of drawing time out of their leave- it's an additional source of time," Merfish said. "The lack of availability of this additional time is responsible for a lot of disturbing trends we are seeing in the workforce right now."

She said that during the height of the pandemic, maternal mortality rates, which were already very high in Texas, rose dramatically.

"We saw the greatest increase among Black and Hispanic communities," she said. "This policy ensures that city employees have the support of their employer in accessing medical care, and that is a direct remedy for high mortality rates. One of the most important factors in keeping pregnant people healthy is their ability to regularly see their physician and have their health closely monitored during and up to 12 months after the end of a pregnancy."

"All of our research suggests these are good policies for kids, adults and employers," she said. "Paid parental leave is linked to long-term health benefits for children, higher breastfeeding rates, fewer hospitalizations, and lower post-partem depression. The city will receive the benefit of improved recruiting and retention of its workforce. This will be transformative for the City of Houston, and our next goal is to challenge city partners and private employers to meet the city's commitment to all Houston workers."

Merfish said that there were over 22,000 City of Houston employees. The policy will go into effect May 14, 2022.