Pregnancy issue splits Strickland, OCRC

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, December 4, 2007

Democratic Gov. Ted Strickland, enjoying high voter approval ratings and cooperation from GOP lawmakers, is facing some dissension within his own ranks.

The Ohio Civil Rights Commission has twice denied Strickland’s request to delay a policy change that would require additional businesses to offer a minimum amount of maternity leave.

The result has been a public airing of internal disagreements that are common within a single branch of government but are rarely brought into the open.

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The five-member commission is one of dozens of boards and committees whose members are appointed by the governor.

Strickland appointed the commission’s new chairwoman, Barbara Sykes, over the summer. The other four members were appointed by Gov. Bob Taft, a Republican. All would eventually need Strickland’s blessing to receive new appointments.

The board, which enforces civil rights laws in Ohio, voted 4-1 in October to clarify that the pregnancy leave policy requires even small companies to allow women to take up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave.

Federal law says companies with at least 50 employees must allow new mothers who have worked at least 1,250 hours in the preceding 12 months to take up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave. Current state law requires companies to give women a “reasonable period of time” off work to care for their newborn.

Business groups are up in arms over the proposal and question whether the agency has the ability to make such a sweeping change.

Two weeks ago, Strickland asked the commission to delay a vote scheduled for Monday before a legislative rule-making committee to allow more business input. The commission, including Sykes, refused.

At an emergency meeting last week, the commission looked like it was getting cold feet, then changed its mind at the last minute and voted 3-2 to again thwart Strickland’s request.

Strickland is downplaying the disagreement, saying he’s disappointed but not angry. But he also says he won’t forget.

“Let me say this: I am disappointed in the chairman’s position and probably will remain disappointed,” Strickland said.

Sykes, a former Democratic state lawmaker from Akron, says she respects Strickland and what he has asked but says the issue has been settled by the commission.

“I am so sorry I have disappointed my friend,” she said.

Asked if she had an obligation to follow that friend’s request, she said, “I have an obligation to do right by the people of the state of Ohio.”

Political appointees turning their backs on the people who got them their jobs is not new. Dwight Eisenhower once said that his biggest mistake as president was putting the liberals Earl Warren and William J. Brennan Jr. on the U.S. Supreme Court.

Yet that disagreement was built into the separation between executive and judicial branches. In the case of the civil rights commission, it’s a fight within the same branch.

Wheeler acknowledged the situation was unique but said protecting the rights of pregnant women and new mothers was paramount.

“We truly respect our governor,” he said. “But we’re all put here for that purpose with individual minds to make decisions.”

Andrew Welsh-Huggins is a reporter for The Associated Press.