This column was originally published on Jeff Neal’s blog, ChiefHRO.com, and was republished here with permission from the author.
President Barack Obama’s memorandum directing the Office of Personnel Management and federal agencies to implement leave practices that support parental leave was a good start. It requires agencies to advance sick and annual leave to federal workers for birth or adoption of a child. The memo points out that the United States is the only developed nation in the world without paid parental leave.
That statement actually understates the degree to which U.S. labor policies are out of step with the rest of the world. In a 2014 report, the United Nations International Labor Organization studied parental leave policies of 165 member nations. Only two — Papua New Guinea and the United States of America — fail to guarantee paid maternity leave. The President’s new policy will improve the lot of federal workers, but much more could be done with a comprehensive parental leave bill that provides a requirement for paid maternity leave and a separate grant of maternity leave in addition to regular sick and annual leave.
The problem with simply using the sick and annual leave provisions of the existing law is that they are not enough for many people. Recovering 240 hours sick leave that was advanced will take more than two years. That means a new mother has no sick leave on the books and will not for more than two years. Here is an example: A woman who has been working for the government for less than three years earns four hours of sick leave and four hours of annual leave per pay period. If she has been working two years and taken average amounts of leave, she most likely would have two weeks of sick leave and a few days of annual leave on the books. Under the new policy, she could be advanced all of the annual leave she would earn in the remainder of the leave year and up to 240 hours of sick leave. Combining her accrued leave and the advanced sick and annual leave, she could get about 11 weeks of paid leave prior to and following the birth of a child. Sounds good so far. But what happens when the child gets sick? Or needs a regular check-up? Or the family wants to take a few days vacation or visit family? Or the mother gets sick? Even worse — what happens if she gets pregnant again? There will be no way she can get paid leave for an adequate amount of time.
If we want to keep saying how important children are and how critical it is for a child to have time to bond with his/her mother before being shipped off to day care, we need to rethink parental leave. I recognize there are very different arguments for paternity leave versus maternity leave, so my focus today is on maternity leave. I have said before and continue to believe the U.S. government should be a model employer. That means we need to offer paid maternity leave for every employee. Yes, there is a cost to doing that, but the cost is most likely offset by the benefits to our society that come from children being given a good start in life.
Children are not the only beneficiaries — there is also a benefit to women who are having children. Having no leave available after giving birth adds stress and financial burden, and it can incentivize a woman to leave the government and work for an employer that provides paid maternity leave. She may also find that having little of no leave on the books may lead to her being labeled as a leave abuser. You may be thinking that is crazy, but I have seen cases where employees were labeled as leave abusers for taking sick leave for chemotherapy.
There are other changes to leave benefits that we should consider. For example, current law (5 USC 6302(d)) allows agencies to credit employees with all of their annual leave at the beginning of the year rather than earning it pay period-by-pay period. Doing so would allow employees to have more flexibility to schedule their personal time and it would be a tremendous benefit to new employees. It might also serve as a recruiting incentive. There is no cost to the government and no change in the law needed.
Sick and annual leave are among the best benefits offered to federal workers. If we enhance those programs, we can make the government a better employer, serve as a role model for other employers, and perhaps help with some of the current morale issues in government.
Jeff Neal is a senior vice president for ICF International and founder of the blog, ChiefHRO.com. Before coming to ICF, Neal was the chief human capital officer at the Department of Homeland Security and the chief human resources officer at the Defense Logistics Agency.