On May 20, the Diocese of Pensacola-Tallahassee announced a new paid parental leave policy for all diocesan employees. The new policy, which goes into effect on July 1, 2022, offers three weeks of paid parental leave in the event of a birth or adoption to employees at the diocese's schools, parishes, agencies, and pastoral center employees.
Renée Roden spoke with Bishop William Wack, CSC to discuss how the diocese's new policy came to be.
Renée Roden: Thanks for taking the time to speak with me again, Bishop Wack. When we spoke in March, you said that this is something you wanted to do and was one of your goals for the diocese. So we were excited to hear that it happened! Could you take a moment to explain the policy that the diocese of Pensacola-Tallahassee has implemented for its employees?
Bishop Wack, C.S.C: I brought the question to our Presbyteral Council on May 12, with the idea that we would start with something.
At the time, we did not have a policy, really, outside of the Family Medical Leave Act. Paid parental leave was not something that we had really addressed before. I don't know if people had asked for it before I got here, but it wasn't being done.
As soon as I mentioned it, unanimously, all the priests said, “Oh my gosh, yes, let's do it.” And I just threw out, "How about two weeks?" And they said, “Let's do more. Let's start with three weeks.” So I got overruled. [laugh] But that's what the council is for.
Renée Roden: And what was the reasoning behind the three weeks?
Bishop Wack, C.S.C: I think the sense was, well, let's just start with this. We didn’t want to overwhelm people, especially the schools. It’s going to mostly affect schools, I think, because most of the people who would access those funds would be teachers.
So just knowing our budgets right now, we thought, let's start with this and see where it goes. We'll probably build more and lengthen it in the future, but we wanted to start with the three weeks.
Renée Roden: That's great. So this policy is for all employees across the diocese?
Bishop Wack, C.S.C: Yep. For all diocesan employees – over 1,300 of them.
Renée Roden: You met with the Presbyteral Council on May 12, and you announced it on May 20, just about a week later. That's a really quick turnaround.
Bishop Wack, C.S.C: We like to make decisions. We are a smaller diocese, one of the smaller ones, and we're also one of the youngest: we were founded in 1975. So we have this feeling that we can make decisions. I don't mean that others can't, but we just don't have a lot of history or a lot of layers of administration to go through.
So they often have to take their time, but we have the ability to act a little more quickly on something. So we do that for a lot of things. We do end up having to tweak things or say, "Ooh, that didn't go so well, let’s do something else."
But, you know, for me, this idea has been with me since December, when these two women approached me. Ever since then, I've been thinking about paid leave.
So I say we like to make decisions, but it wasn't that quick. December was, what, five months ago. It’d been long enough, so we decided to just put something in place.
And that's something I do that's my style: I try to get a lot of input, discern, pray about an issue, but then to act, to make a decision.
Renée Roden: So the Presbyteral Council is all clergy. What role did the laity play in this decision-making?
Bishop Wack, C.S.C: Well, as I mentioned the first time you interviewed me, two people – an employee of the diocese and another was her friend – contacted me separately in the fall, just asking about this. And that prompted me to go to Human Resources. And I found out that we don't really have a parental leave policy outside of the FMLA. So that got me talking to other people, talking to young people, teachers, some people here in the pastoral center, about their experiences and they said, yeah, we could have used a paid maternity and paternity leave policy.
It got me thinking. But it really began with two people bringing the issue to the forefront and then talking to others, saying, yeah, why don't we do that?
Renée Roden: That’s pretty impressive that two phone calls can produce this change, that it can be this simple for people to speak up and put things in motion.
Bishop Wack, C.S.C: It is. And that's how we’ve begun a couple of other ministries as well, one to formerly incarcerated, violent offenders. Some people said, "Why don't we start a ministry for them?" So now we do.
And then, "How about a ministry for elderly homeless men?" Now we have a house for them. "How about for pregnant women who are on the verge of being, or who are, homeless?" Now we have a place for them. I keep telling people that's how it begins.
What doesn’t work is when people say, “We need this,” and then they just walk away, but what works is when they say, “We need this, and I have several people who want to work on it.” And I say, “You have my blessing.”
Renée Roden: What has the reaction from the diocese been to this announcement?
Bishop Wack, C.S.C: We only just announced it a couple of days ago, so I haven’t heard much, but I’ve just heard gratitude and people saying that's fantastic. The superintendent of schools was thrilled. All I’ve heard so far has been positive.
Renée Roden: At the beginning of May, the leak of the Supreme Court’s draft decision prompted a lot of discussion about what the Catholic Church needs to do to support women and live out its pro-life mission. Did any of that come up in your discussions about this policy?
Bishop Wack, C.S.C: That’s not what drove it, but after our discussion, one of the priests on the council said this strengthens the Church’s pro-life position with whatever comes down the pike. But to be completely honest, it really is something that was begun with those two simple phone calls back in December.
But this policy is one more example of how we need to, as the bishops say in their program, walk with moms in need. And not just moms, but to really recognize what mothers, fathers, and families go through in raising children, having children, and choosing life. We need to not just say, “You should choose life,” but support them, walk with them, and give them the means as much as possible to do that.
We're all in this together. So how can we sacrifice maybe a little bit in our budget so that young families can have the means to use just three weeks with paid leave to really start bonding with their children and raise up their family?
We’re trying to step away from just saying we're anti-abortion to asking, “How can we be pro-life? How can we accompany and encounter and walk with young families?”
I think the paid leave policy is very much a part of that. Even though it wasn't driven by that, it dovetails nicely into where we want to be as a diocese.
Renée Roden: Well, thank you for speaking with us. It’s really encouraging to hear that two people call a bishop and, five months later, there are three weeks of maternity leave where there were none. I think that’s a testament to real cooperation.
Bishop Wack, C.S.C: Thank you. This is how things happen.