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‘We don’t consider them to be dollar figures’ - Arlington diocese introduces paid family, medical leave

Thirty years ago, the federal Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) was passed, ensuring job protection for employees who need to take leave for the birth or adoption of a baby, or for a serious medical issue in the family. 

But the law - which only applies to companies with 50 or more employees - does not provide for employees to be paid during their leave.

Credit: pixelheadphoto digitalskillet / Shutterstock.

As of last year, almost 8 in 10 Americans have no access to paid medical and family leave, according to federal statistics. And U.S. dioceses offer a patchwork of policies, with more than 40 offering no paid maternity leave last year.

The Diocese of Arlington, Virginia has bucked the trend on paid leave with its recent announcement, that beginning this month, employees of the diocese will have access to eight weeks of paid time off for qualifying family and medical reasons.

The new policy was made public last week by Arlington Bishop Michael Burbidge, who last year was chosen to head the USCCB’s pro-life committee.

Terri D’Elia, human resources director for the Arlington diocese, says the new policy is one way to put those pro-life beliefs into practice.

The Pillar spoke with D’Elia about the rationale behind the new benefits, the financial considerations that went into crafting the policy, and employee response to the new changes.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

What prompted the decision to introduce this new paid family and medical leave policy in the diocese?

We did a survey of our diocese and employees. It was an overall survey, not just about family medical leave, but some of the things that came out in that were related to family medical leave policy and how employees would appreciate that being more supportive. And even outside of surveys, from time to time, of course, you get unsolicited feedback from those who are experiencing the need for an absence and voicing where they would wish things would be different.

[Previously], the Family Medical Leave Act allowed employees who were eligible to have their job and their benefits protected. But in order to be paid for that time, our prior policy required that they use their own sick leave or vacation, or if they were absent for their own illness, then our disability benefit might have picked up some of that as well.

So hearing those concerns, Bishop Burbidge is very on top of those kinds of things. And so after consulting with his executive staff and then our presbyteral council and various pastors, there was the development of this new policy.

It's been about almost a year long process, to be honest with you. And not because it really took a year to make decisions, but just because of the wide implications. We needed to have enough time to properly communicate and implement this, have systems ready and be cognizant of our budgets as well.

It was officially approved in late October 2022, then announced to our staff in January 2023 with a go-live date of July 1.

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How has the change been received by employees at the diocese?

We’ve gotten a lot of feedback. Within minutes of making the announcement, we started receiving all sorts of emails and phone calls and comments in the hallways. Everybody is thankful, I haven't heard a single negative reaction at all. The employees themselves are thrilled. The pastors are happy about it, and the principals.

Those who are already out on leave were thrilled to hear that there was going to be a change forthcoming. Those who already knew they had plans to be out on leave - either because of known surgeries or future births of babies - were excited. And then really, I think others who didn't have an imminent need just felt really happy to know that there was kind of that policy in place, that safety net, should something unexpected happen.

There are several elements of the policy that stand out – even among other paid leave policies. Benefits are offered to part-time employees who work 24 hours or more per week. Dads get the full eight weeks after the birth of a child, not just moms. What was the thinking behind some of those inclusions?

With the Family Medical Leave Act, you do have to protect the person's job if they have a qualifying condition, as long as they've worked a year and 1,250 hours, which averages about 24 hours a week, which is part-time for us anyways.

In terms of providing the payment, we just don't feel that it's appropriate or just to make a distinction between those who are full-time and part-time. If you're eligible for family medical leave, then we want to treat everybody the same.

This includes not just the central administrative office, but our employees in our parishes and our schools. And then those at Catholic Charities too.


FMLA offers up to 12 weeks of unpaid job protection for qualifying events. Among other dioceses that have paid leave, many offer just a couple of weeks.

You’re offering eight weeks of paid leave. How did you arrive at that number?

As we were probing making the changes, we did a lot of research. So we knew what other dioceses were doing, as well as federal and state governments and big employers in this area.

But we also looked at what the average time of absence was. We had several years of history for people being out under family medical leave or disability. Most of the absences were averaging about eight weeks.

And we also knew what the average leave balances were. We have a very generous sick and vacation leave plan on top of this. And our average leave balances were over 11 weeks. So most of our employees who need this benefit have far more than four weeks of leave to supplement.

Looking at all of that, we determined that eight weeks would be appropriate. Also being cognizant that there are of course going to be some financial implications to this.

Since you already have that vacation and sick time policy, why was it a priority for the bishop and the diocese to add a policy specifically offering paid leave for family and medical reasons?

Well, we're pro-life, right? We're Catholic and that starts from conceptions to death. I mean, that's who we are. And so having policies that support our belief system are really important to us. And so that runs the gamut, and that would include providing appropriate leave for people to use, who have those life experiences.

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You mention that there will be financial implications to this policy. How did that factor into the decisions involved in crafting this policy?

Right - this isn't being covered by some kind of huge surplus of money sitting around. The absences that take place, those costs are borne by the individual locations where those employees reside. There's not some big diocesan pool of money hidden away to do this.

But our employees... we don't consider them to be dollar figures. 

It's a way for us to show how grateful we are for them and their service. And we believe that we as a diocese are going to be stronger and better able to serve if our employees are cared for. And so we'll reap the benefits of that, I guess is what I'm trying to say. So we value them and the work that they do, and we want to give them that time off so they can focus, and then when they return, they'll be probably just as much if not more productive and efficient and hopefully appreciative.

Do you have a sense of what the financial implication will be? And how did you determine how you will balance that?

It is hard to predict the true financial impact.

In the year just prior to implementing this, we had 185 total claims that fell under the categories that would be eligible for family medical leave. So 67.6% of those absences were related to caring for a family member's serious medical condition or that of their own. And the other 32.4% of our absences were related to birth or adoption or foster care placement.

We know that since our employees already had such large sick and vacation leave balances, those were balances they could have used anyways, and that would have cost us. It is hard to predict the number of additional claims that we'll have because of this. We know we'll have more. Certainly we don't expect people are going to have more babies because of this per se, or get ill or have more surgeries. But we do think that people maybe will use more of the time that they already had allotted to them than they would have in the past, because they know that they've got that financial protection that wasn't an absolute before.

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So you haven't adjusted the budget to reflect a specific number. You're just trusting that as you move forward, you will incorporate that into your budget plan?


And you’ve also introduced a new bereavement policy, offering employees 10 days off following the death of a loved one. What was the reasoning behind that?

Well, it really kind of all goes hand-in-hand, to be honest with you. Family medical leave is either for your own use or to care for a family member. But unfortunately, often following the care for a family member with a serious health condition, sometimes the end result is that person passing away. And we know that we need to give our employees time to grieve in that situation.

Even though perhaps they've already taken 12 weeks, we want to give them the time that they need to really focus on what's important, their spiritual healing, as well as all the other things that go into taking care of things, following the death of a loved one. And we wanted to give appropriate time for that.

That's not to say that 10 days is enough time for anyone to finish their grieving. I don't mean to say that. But we feel that it is a more appropriate timeframe to care for some of those immediate needs.

The bereavement policy also covers miscarriages. Do you see that as a way to recognize the humanity of the unborn child, as well as the very real loss that the parents are going through?

Absolutely, absolutely. And that was a very deliberate thing. You don't see that in a lot of policies, but that was really important to us. Certainly in the case of a miscarriage, the female employee would likely have some sick leave to take in the past, or maybe even some vacation leave. But to really say, this is a human being, this is a real loss. This isn't about being physically ill. There is a grieving, whether that individual was in the womb for five weeks or on Earth for five years. And we want to make sure that our employees understand that we recognize it as that and give them a proper space to do that.

What would you tell other employers that would like to offer a paid leave policy, but are uncertain if they would be able to make it work?

Well, I think Bishop Burbidge would make the point that not every diocese would have the same answers, but he would encourage all of them to be asking the question — What can they do? And recognizing that the resources can be very different from diocese to diocese, but there's probably at least something that can be done to be moving forward to help families - if not to the extent that we're able to do it, at least to some extent. And that would certainly be encouraged.

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