Column - Paid federal family leave faces Senate uncertainty after ‘huge win’ in House
Cheryl Monroe, a Food and Drug Administration chemist, travels a lot from Detroit to visit her elderly, ailing parents in South Carolina, sometimes five or six days a month.
“I’m burning up leave right now,” she said. That doesn’t count her days off without pay. “Of course, that hits my paycheck.”
Marita Eibl, a federal employee in the District, says she’s in the sandwich generation, caring for her special-needs son and checking on her aging parents in the Midwest, especially her father, who suffered a stroke.
Jennifer Ramirez-Serrano said she was heading to New York’s Penn Station last week when she was injured in a car accident. Now she’s in pain and off her Social Security Administration job for an extended time.
These women are the type of federal employees who could benefit from the Federal Employee Paid Leave Act. The House approved the legislation Friday. If the Senate agrees, which is questionable, it would be the finternt federally funded paid family leave program.
Ironically, Ramirez-Serrano’s accident occurred as she was traveling to the District to advocate for the legislation, which would provide federal employees with 12 weeks of paid leave for personal and family care.
She certainly needs it now.
Having already used up most of her sick time to care for her son, Ramirez-Serrano said, “I’m going to exhaust my leave very, very quickly. … Right now I’m on leave without pay, and that’s a financial burden for me and my family.”
All three women spoke through their association with federal employee organizations and not as agency staffers. Ramirez-Serrano is a local official with the American Federation of Government Employees, and so is Monroe with the National Treasury Employees Union. Eibl was referred by the National Active and Retired Federal Employees Association.
The paid leave measure supported by all three organizations was adopted as an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act. The Senate version of the defense bill does not include the paid leave measure, so the differences must be reconciled.
Approval in the House was a long-sought victory for Rep. Carolyn B. Maloney (D-N.Y.), who introduced her first paid parental leave bill nearly two decades ago. That bill, however, limited paid leave to federal employee parents upon a child’s birth, adoption or foster placement.
The more expansive current version allows paid leave for federal employees to care for children, spouses or parents with serious health issues and for themselves if health conditions prohibit them from working. Also covered are urgent needs connected to the active military duty of an employee’s child, spouse or parent.
“It is a huge win not only for our federal workers but, ultimately, for all working families,” Maloney told the Federal Insider. “Although many of the biggest private-sector companies offer these benefits, many do not. If the government, as an employer, can set a competitive example, other employers will offer it as well to stay competitive for the top talent.”
That win might be short-lived. Republican opposition to the measure in the House signals trouble in the GOP-controlled Senate. The White House has issued a veto threat against the larger defense bill, although that threat did not mention the paid leave provisions.
The Congressional Budget Office did not issue an official cost estimate for the measure, but Maloney predicted it would “save money in replacement and turnover costs, retaining talent while recruiting the next generation of civil servants.”
The paid leave provision also would make Uncle Sam act more like his colleagues. The United States and Papua New Guinea are the only two countries that do not provide for some form of paid maternity leave, according to a report by the International Labor Organization, a United Nations agency.
Maloney vividly recalls being without paid maternity leave when she was pregnant for the first time. She asked her employer about its time-off policy.
“The answer was basically: ‘Well, you just leave. That’s it. Good luck and have a nice life,’ ” she said. “I was rather shocked back then to learn that my employer’s policy was so blindly indifferent to the real-life needs of working women and men. Really, what did they expect people with a newborn to do who needed every weekly paycheck to make ends meet?”
Maloney worked to correct that when she got to Congress. “Paid parental leave seemed like the most obvious place to start,” she said.
Maloney introduced a paid parental leave bill in 2000 and expanded it to paid family leave this year.
“The conversation has changed dramatically, and the need for a person to take care of a sick loved one or their own personal medical condition has become just as important,” she said, “especially in our aging federal workforce.”