Lawmakers unveil details of ‘historic’ federal paid parental leave benefits

The federal workforce is officially one step closer to achieving a long-awaited, hard-fought new benefit.

The annual defense policy bill, if passed by both chambers of Congress and signed into law by the president, would grant federal employees up to 12 weeks of paid leave for the birth, adoption or foster of a new child.

A conference agreement for the National Defense Authorization Act, which lawmakers released late Monday night, details the new terms of the paid parental leave program.

The leave applies to both men and women, and federal employees would have access to it starting in October 2020.

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The benefit does not, as prior versions of this legislative proposal suggested, apply to federal employees who want paid time off to care for a sick family member or recover from their own serious medical condition.

Federal employees will keep the unpaid leave they currently receive under the Family and Medical Leave Act. They do not, as the conference report explicitly states, need to exhaust FMLA before using paid parental leave, meaning the paid and unpaid leave would likely be treated as separate categories.

Paid parental leave will not accumulate. Employees who want to use it must agree, in writing, to work for their agency for at least 12 weeks after the conclusion of the leave period, though that requirement can be waived if the employee develops a serious physical or mental health condition after the birth or placement of a new child.

Like FMLA leave, employees must also generally work for the government for about a year before taking advantage of paid parental leave.

Terms of the paid parental leave program differ slightly for employees at the Government Accountability Office, Library of Congress and staffers and employees in Congress.

Lawmakers, federal employee groups and others have been advocating for such a benefit for more than a decade.

New House Oversight and Reform Committee Chairwoman Carolyn Maloney (D-N.Y.) took the lead in introducing the Federal Employee Paid Leave Act back in March. Previous iterations of this bill had twice passed the House but never made it to the Senate for a vote. Federal employees often called Maloney’s office over the years to check on the status of the paid parental leave bill, she said.

House Armed Service Committee Chairman Adam Smith (D-Wash.), who worked to include the federal paid parental leave program in the annual defense policy bill, said he too heard from grateful employees.

“Even in just the couple of days since this has become public, I have had people come to me, one person in particular, who said that he actually left the State Department when he had a child. He would have stayed if this provision had been available,” he told reporters Tuesday afternoon.

Federal employee groups and unions on Tuesday applauded the agreement on the paid parental leave program, calling a “watershed,” “life-changing” moment for the federal workforce.

“This is a monumental step forward in allowing federal employees to bond with their new children whether a new birth, adoption or foster,” Tony Reardon, national president of the National Treasury Employees Union, said in a statement. “It is a crucial time in their lives, and they shouldn’t have to choose between their children and their paycheck.”

NTEU, the American Federation of Government Employees and the National Active and Retired Federal Employees (NARFE) Association, have been pushing for this benefit for years.

“The hard work by our members is finally beginning to pay off,” Everett Kelley, AFGE’s national secretary-treasurer, said in a statement. “This new paid benefit will help federal employees better balance their work and home lives, and it will give agencies a needed advantage when recruiting and retaining workers to carry out critical missions on behalf of our country.

House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) and Maloney, along with Reps. Don Beyer and Jennifer Wexton (D-Va.), were original co-sponsors of the Federal Employee Paid Leave Act.

They all praised the agreement that had been reached in the annual defense policy bill but urged their congressional colleagues to use this agreement as a way to set the stage for broader paid leave programs nationwide.

“The victory lap is somewhat circumscribed because as the chairwoman described there is more work to do,” Gerry Connolly (D-Va.), chairman of the House Oversight and Reform Government Operations Subcommittee, said Tuesday morning during a hearing on a national paid family leave program. “While we have 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.”

Hoyer described the new paid parental leave agreement as a “first step.”

“While I am relieved that all federal employees will enjoy this benefit after Oct. 1, 2020, and not only Department of Defense employees as some had suggested, I am disappointed that paid benefits are limited only to the birth or adoption of a child and not time needed to care for oneself or a sick relative,” he said in testimony submitted to House Oversight and Reform Committee.  “I hope the Congress can finish this work and extend that benefit soon.”

In her first committee hearing since becoming chairwoman, Maloney also urged her colleagues to extend similar paid leave benefits to the rest of the country.

The United States and Papua New Guinea are the only countries in the world that don’t have paid parental leave programs written into law.

“I’m so thrilled that 2.1 million federal workers have this support now, but we’re going to keep working so that it can be out for those who work in the private sector,” Maloney said. “It’s the least we can do.”

The House is expected to begin considerations of the defense policy bill and federal paid parental leave program Wednesday. Senate consideration is expected to shortly follow.

“If Congress gets this done, it shows that persistence pays,” Randy Erwin, national president of the National Federation of Federal Employees, said Tuesday afternoon. “It shows that our government is responsive to the needs of working families. This bill is not the end-all-be-all but is a huge step in the right direction.”

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