NTEU, federal employee groups press Congress on paid family leave

Several federal employee groups this week made an aggressive push to Congress to grant the federal workforce paid family leave.

More than 100 organizations, which included the National Treasury Employees Union, American Federation of Government Employees and National Active and Retired Federal Employees (NARFE) Association, as well as dozens of women, labor and health groups, urged conferees working on the annual defense policy bill to include the Federal Employee Paid Leave Act (FEPLA) in the 2020 National Defense Authorization Act.

“We are encouraged that a bipartisan majority of both the House and Senate have indicated support of the FEPLA provision,” the organizations wrote in an Oct. 10 letter to House and Senate armed services leadership. “We believe that this strong support indicates that it must remain part of the final NDAA conference agreement.”

Members have included FEPLA in the House version of the annual defense authorization bill.

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FEPLA, which Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-N.C.) and several other House Democrats introduced earlier this year, would give federal employees up to 12 weeks of paid leave for the birth, adoption or foster placement of a new child — and for the care of a spouse, family member or themselves.

But the Senate’s version of the defense policy bill doesn’t include a paid family leave program for federal employees, meaning congressional leaders will need to conference over the measure.

Federal employee organizations say they’re optimistic the measure will survive ongoing conference negotiations.

“We’re definitely very close,” Tony Reardon, national president of the National Treasury Employees Union, told reporters Thursday.

In an attempt to insist the conferees took up the paid family leave program during defense policy negotiations, Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii) introduced a “motion to instruct” late last month.

But the motion failed by a narrow 47-48 vote.

Sens. Cory Booker (D-N.J.), Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) weren’t present and didn’t vote on the motion. Employee groups say it’s safe to assume these four senators would have voted “yes” and the motion easily would have passed if these members were present for the vote.

Four Republican senators, including Shelley Moore Capito (Wyo.), Susan Collins (Maine), Lisa Murkowski (Alaska) and Rob Portman (Ohio), also voted to instruct the motion.

NTEU and other federal employee organizations say this shows the paid family leave program has bipartisan support.

55 House members, including 2 Republicans, urged armed services leadership to include the paid family leave program in the final 2020 defense authorization conference report.

“Our workforce is also aging, creating a shortage of family caregivers and leaving that responsibility to family members,” members wrote in an Aug. 19 letter. “Only 8% of the federal workforce is under 30, compared to 24% of the total labor force. With more than 31% of the federal workforce eligible to retire within the next five years, we have major recruitment challenges on the horizon. Offering paid family leave is a good first step towards meeting them.”

The National Partnership for Women and Families estimated the program could save government $50 million in reduced employee turnover costs and prevent the departure of more than 2,600 women from the federal workforce.

Several employees also detailed the emotional toll that caring for their elderly or sick parents have taken on them.

Cecilia Romero, a chemist and NTEU member at the Food and Drug Administration, is struggling to take time off work to care for her mother, who has Alzheimer’s disease.

After accumulating sick leave for 29 years at FDA, Romero is down to just 5.5 hours. She can, like most other federal employees, take time off through the Family and Medical Leave Act, but that’s unpaid.

“My mom attends adult day care five days a week, and I am paying another aide to help her out,” Romero told reporters. “I can’t afford to take unpaid leave. I have already used up all my savings, and right now I’m currently trying to get out of debt. Having 12 weeks of paid leave would be life changing for me and many of my coworkers.”

Dawn Clark, an IRS employee in Kansas City, Kansas, has also struggled recently to balance work and caring for her father, who was exposed to Agent Orange during his tours in the Vietnam War.

Clark’s father was diagnosed with cancer in February, and she spent her weekends driving eight hours to visit him at Veterans Affairs hospice facility in Chicago.

He passed away earlier this week, she said.

“Having paid leave would have allowed me to be there with him in his final days without worrying about losing income and the extra expenses I incurred with the travel every weekend,” Clark said.

NTEU recently reached an agreement with the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation to offer six weeks of paid leave for the birth, adoption or foster placement of a new child.

“Clearly we are pleased to have reached agreement with the FDIC with this program,” Reardon said. “It’s a solid start to providing FDIC employees with some support when they have a child. But NTEU remains absolutely convinced that any program needs to also include time for other family-type situations.”

NTEU was careful to say it didn’t see the FDIC program as a model for the rest of government, because the paid leave would only apply to new parents, not those like Clark and Romero, who were caring for sick family members.

Still, Reardon said the union is also having positive negotiations with the Securities and Exchange Commission about a similar paid leave program.

“At FDIC, absolutely, they were enough in favor of it that, ultimately, they agreed to put language  in the contract about it,” he said. “It’s been a long discussion, at least for a few years, at SEC. There’s definitely some very good, positive movement there.”

The Department of Veterans Affairs has told Congress recently it supported a paid family leave program as a possible incentive to attract more young, top talent to the agency.

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