House Approves Paid Parental Leave for Federal Workers

Democrats push for broader paid family leave rights

Lisa Nagele-Piazza, J.D., SHRM-SCP By Lisa Nagele-Piazza, J.D., SHRM-SCP December 12, 2019
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House Approves Paid Parental Leave for Federal Workers

The U.S. House of Representatives on Dec. 11 passed a paid parental leave provision for qualifying federal employees. The Senate is expected to approve the measure, which would then be sent to President Donald Trump for signature. [Update: the Senate approved the measure on Dec. 17.]

The leave provision is part of a defense spending bill and was reportedly added in exchange for making "Space Force" a new branch of the U.S. military, according to The Washington Post.

Military service members already may take 12 weeks of paid leave to care for a new child, and under this bill, 2.1 million civilian federal workers also would be able to take paid leave to care for a new baby after birth, adoption or the start of foster care.

"Parents finally will be able to have a child without worrying about their paychecks coming to a halt," said Rep. Carolyn Maloney, D-New York.

Maloney and other House Democrats have said that all U.S. workers should have access to a nationwide paid leave program that covers more than just parental leave.

"There's still more work to do," said Rep. Gerry Connolly, D-Va., at an Oversight and Reform Committee hearing Dec. 10. "While we've secured paid parental leave for federal employees, we must continue to fight for paid family caregiving leave and leave to care for one's own medical needs."

The Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) requires large organizations to offer employees up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave to care for a new child, sick relative or their own illness. Although a growing number of states have passed or are considering paid family leave laws, there is no nationwide equivalent.

Maloney noted at the hearing that the U.S. is one of only a few countries that don't provide any form of paid leave nationwide.

The Society for Human Resource Management believes that the U.S. must have a 21st Century workplace flexibility policy that works for employers and employees alike, helping them meet work-life and organizational needs.

Several Policies Under Consideration

Democratic Congress members are considering several additional paid family leave policies, including:

"Providing this benefit is a significant and important investment in our future," Maloney said. "We need a policy that supports hard-working young women who are having their children, that supports the father in crisis who is caring for his 2-year-old daughter with cancer, and that supports the dedicated husband who is helping his wife recover from her stroke," she said.

Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, called paid family leave a "well-intentioned policy," but noted that Congress must consider the potential tradeoffs for workers, such as lower pay and reduced employer-based benefits. "The best way to help both employers and employees throughout the country is to pursue policies that promote economic growth and job creation," he said. "Because of our growing economy, companies are competing for workers and voluntarily expanding benefits for their employees."

Access to Leave

DeLauro testified at the Dec. 10 hearing that paid family leave would level the playing field for the middle class and working people. "It is sadly no surprise that very few can afford to lose several weeks of wages, whether to care for an ill loved one or for the birth of a child."

Several advocates and business leaders also testified in favor of paid leave benefits for both the public and private sectors.  

Jacqui Silvani, a member of advocacy group MomsRising from Newfields, N.H., said she personally understands why the U.S. needs a comprehensive paid leave policy that allows all workers to care for their families. Her son was diagnosed with cancer when he was 2 years old. His treatment was long and complicated, and he spent more than 200 days in the hospital. Silvani said that having paid leave would have made a big difference for her and her husband, enabling them to pay the bills and keep both of their jobs, but that was not an available option for them.

"Access to paid leave shouldn't depend on one's employer, their job, or their state of residence, or whether they're a traditional employee or a contract worker," said Vicki Shabo, senior fellow for paid leave policy and strategy for New America's Better Life Lab in Washington, D.C.

[SHRM members-only toolkit: Managing Family and Medical Leave]

Aaron Seyedian, founder of Washington, D.C.-based Well-Paid Maids, said his employees earn at least $17 an hour and receive medical insurance and maternity leave. He said paid leave can be affordable and beneficial for small businesses. "As a small business owner, I can tell you that the sky is not going to fall on employers if something like this is enacted."

But Rachel Greszler, research fellow in economics, budget and entitlements for the Heritage Foundation in Washington, D.C., said that a government-run paid family leave program would have costs and consequences. She said voluntary, employer-run programs work better because they can balance workers' and employers' needs with minimal costs and often provide more-generous benefits than government programs. She supports the Working Families Flexibility Act, which would establish tax-exempt parental-leave savings accounts for child care that can be funded by employees and employers.

Greszler said employer offerings, such as universal savings accounts, are letting workers draw on tax-preferred savings and would be particularly helpful for independent, part-time and temporary workers. "Considering the upward trend in efficient and flexible employer-provided paid leave programs, as well as the highly regressive nature of the existing government programs," she said, "policymakers should avoid enacting a new federal program and instead focus on giving workers more income and flexibility to choose what works best for them."

[Visit SHRM's resource page on paid time off.]

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