Paid Parental Leave: Coming Soon To A Congressional Office Near You

America is an Outlier on Parental Leave Policies 

America is far behind the rest of the world when it comes to providing employees with paid parental leave. The United States is one of two developed nations that does not provide its workers with any form of paid parental leave, the other being Papua New Guinea. 

Roughly 19 percent of American workers have a paid parental leave policy with their employer. The most common duration for paid leave in the US is 6 weeks, while countries in Europe provide anywhere from 6 months to two years

There are many positive impacts when workers are given paid parental leave, including higher productivity, healthier children, and longer term financial stability for employers and employees. It also is a key contributor to closing the gender wage gap. 

There has been some progress at the state level. Eight states and the District of Columbia have passed laws requiring many employers to offer paid leave — not just for new parents, but also for illness and elder care.

Lawmakers at the federal level should promote policies that make it possible for hard working employees who want to have children to do so without having to worry about financial hardship or running the risk of being unable to return to their job. 

Paid Leave in Exchange for the Space Force

Earlier today, the Senate voted 86-8 in favor of The National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), which passed the House last week. The bill included provisions for 12 weeks of paid leave for federal civilian employees for the birth, adoption, or fostering of a child. Unlike prior versions of this proposal, the benefit does not apply to federal employees who want paid time off to care for a sick family member or to recover from their own serious medical condition. 

The White House said last Tuesday that it is supportive of the legislation in its current form and President Trump will sign the NDAA into law. This decision came after discussions over the weekend that ended in lawmakers agreeing to keep language for paid leave in exchange for the creation of the Space Force.

How will the government pay for paid parental leave? The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) estimates the plan will cost roughly $8.1 billion over the next 10 years. A recent report from the CBO details that the program will cost about $774 million in 2021. That price increases to $817 million in 2022, and $846 million in 2023. 

The federal government is the nation’s largest employer, and should be a model employer for the nation. Prior to the passage of the NDAA, non-military federal workers only had access to 12 weeks of unpaid leave through the Family and Medical Leave Act, which Congress passed in 1993. While the language in this year’s NDAA does not include family leave, the paid parental leave provision is a monumental step for over 2 million federal employees. 

The First Branch Survey on FMLA

The language in the NDAA states that paid paid leave provisions would apply to congressional staff, the Government Accountability Office, and Library of Congress employees. All federal employees will have access to this benefit starting October 1, 2020. 

Paid leave policies can be a significant factor in congressional staff retention. According to a Congressional Management Foundation study, 24% of congressional staff cited unsatisfactory leave benefits (such as parental leave) as a significant reason for leaving their job with Congress.

Up to this point, there has never been a universal policy or guideline that Congress offers to its staff. Each office has its own distinct policy, and some offices have no policy and offer no benefits whatsoever.

In November, Demand Progress sent a survey to every House personal and committee office to inquire regarding their paid parental and family leave policies. For our purposes, paid parental and family leave refers to partially or fully compensated time away from work for specific and generally significant family care-giving needs, such as the arrival of a new child or serious illness of a close family member.

Congressional offices are generally reluctant to answer surveys from outside organizations. We received responses from 64 personal offices, including 62 Democrats and 2 Republicans. A significant number of respondents offered 12 weeks of paid leave. 52 personal offices offered 12 weeks of paid leave at the same rate for all paid staffers, followed by six offices that offer six weeks and two offices that offer 16 weeks and eight weeks, and two offices offering four weeks. These findings are displayed in the graph below. The Appropriations Committee was the only committee to respond to the survey, stating that they offer its committee and subcommittee staff 12 weeks as well. 

Language in the Legislative Branch Appropriations bill for FY 2020, expected to become law shortly, requires a congressional study on paid parental and medical leave to be completed in 2021. It’s focus is on the feasibility of a House-wide paid parental leave policy, but also goes further than the NDAA provision and also addresses the implementation of paid medical leave. The timing for recommendations to implement paid leave couldn’t be better.

Congress is also looking to improve child care availability for Congress staff. Our team wrote about congressional child care options in late 2018, finding that wait lists for infant-care are so long that by the time a position opens up, the average child ages out of infant care.

A Special Moment for Chairwoman Maloney

Last Tuesday, the same day the White House agreed to the language in the NDAA, the House Oversight Committee held a hearing on comprehensive national paid parental and family leave. It was the first hearing for Congresswoman Maloney as new chair of the committee. The chairwoman took a moment to recognize the previous chair of the committee, the late Elijah Cummings, who passed away in October. 

Chairwoman Maloney has been a champion of the paid family and medical leave for years, continuing to sponsor the bill entitled the Federal Employee Paid Leave Act, which part of the language was used for the NDAA. The hearing mainly focused on the benefits of paid leave for all employees and only briefly discussed federal workers. 

During a Government Operations Subcommittee hearing on September 25th, Congresswoman Maloney contended that paid leave is often a deciding factor when workers are offered employment in either the public or private sector and it’s lack hurts retention and recruitment among federal workers.

The language in the NDAA is a step in the right direction to provide more benefits for congressional staffers who are underpaid, overworked, and often underappreciated. Congress must now look to focus on working to provide benefits for family leave for federal workers. 

— Written by Taylor J. Swift