In September, the federal Department of Labor announced that it had awarded $1.55 million in grant money to help states and cities research the need and design for potential paid family leave programs. Tennessee was one of the five lucky states to win money, with the DOL giving the state Commission on Aging and Disability $193,462 to study need for leave in the state. It was the largest grant the commission had ever received.
But just two months later, the commission abruptly announced it was giving back the money it had itself applied for. In announcing its decision, Jim Shulman, the commission’s executive director, said the grant focused too much on labor issues and not on caregiving. “We submitted something that was outside the scope of what this agency does,” he said. “We submitted a proposal that really didn’t talk much about caregiving. We included in that a contract that wasn’t going to do what we said we were going to do. There is a problem with that.” The agency didn’t respond to a request for further comment.
That reasoning doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to Craig Fitzhugh (D), the Tennessee House minority leader. “It is a bit puzzling and certainly troubling,” he said. “It certainly seemed to be in the purview of the mission of the commission on aging, because it included family leave for when people care for older parents, for instance. I certainly think it was appropriate.”
Advocates are similarly perplexed. “It doesn’t make sense frankly,” said Elizabeth Gedmark, director of the southern office at A Better Balance, which advocates for policies like paid family leave. “Why would you apply for a grant and then return the funds?”
None of those who supported seeking the grant are sure what the real story is. But many suspect the reason was more political than practical. The commission’s announcement followed an op-ed published by Republican Rep. Susan Lynn calling on the agency to reject the DOL’s grant money. “Tennessee should reject these federal monies, which are part of a concerted campaign-like effort to get states like ours to acquiesce to policies that do more harm than good,” she wrote. And saying that consideration of a bill to authorize the state Department of Labor & Workforce Development to ask for a DOL grant failed for a lack of yes votes, she called the commission’s application for a grant “an apparent end-around our legislative process by the federal government.”
That’s not how Fitzhugh remembers it, however. “It had bipartisan support in the legislature,” he said. “The bill was not defeated, it was just pulled because the session was moving so quickly.” Lynn did not respond to requests for further comment.
“I can’t help but think that it was politically motivated, but I don’t know that for sure,” he added.
In the op-ed, Lynn indicated the grant money was meant to coerce the state into enacting a paid leave program. But all of the supporters pointed out that the money was not to design or implement a program — simply to study whether one is needed in the state and what that might look like.
“There’s absolutely no requirement that if you do a study all of a sudden you have to put in place a paid family leave scheme,” Gedmark said. “We want to just understand better what is going on in our state.”
And that state-level data is scarce — there is no other data that drills down to that level, only national data showing that just 12 percent of the workforce gets paid family leave at work and less than a quarter of employers offer it. “We have very little data, and without that it’s hard to come up with the best solution for Tennessee,” said Rebecca Kelly, AARP Tennessee state director. Some of the little data specific to the state comes from her group, which has counted nearly 1 million people caregiving for family members, with a value of $10 billion a year. “Research would give the legislature better data and more specific information.”
“I can’t imagine somebody being opposed to gathering more data on an issue this big to Tennesseeans,” she added.
And it was a big coup to get the money in the first place. “It was huge for Tennessee to get this grant,” Gedmark said. “We were really excited about it.” She argues that it helped prove that paid leave isn’t just a coastal issue — the only states with programs are California, New Jersey, and Rhode Island — but also a southern, red state issue.
Plus the money would have gone to the state’s own University of Tennessee to conduct the study. “It just looked to me to be a good deal all the way around,” Leader Fitzhugh noted.
It’s unclear whether a different agency or private entity could take on the study now that the money has been given back to the federal government. In the meantime, state residents are only guaranteed the right to take unpaid leave for a new child or a sick family member, which means many people end up making big financial sacrifices to take time off.
That’s why Fitzhugh is disappointed in the commission’s move. “They’re closing their minds to the issue before we even really know anything about the issue.”