Federal Workers Poised To Get 12 Weeks Paid Parental Leave

Dec 11, 2019
Originally published on December 11, 2019 6:42 pm

Federal workers are on the cusp of getting 12 weeks of paid parental leave, thanks to a landmark proposal making its way through Congress.

The House on Wednesday passed the measure, which is slated for a Senate vote next week and is expected to become law.

"The idea that you could be at home for 12 weeks would be a real game changer, I think, for people — myself included," says Becky Williams, who works as an analyst at the U.S. State Department.

When her son was born four months ago, Williams pulled together three weeks of leave, using a combination of sick leave, vacation time, and tapping donated leave contributed by co-workers at the agency.

But three weeks was not nearly enough time to spend with her new baby. "You definitely rely a lot on the videos and pictures," she says.

This new federal measure builds on an ongoing expansion of paid leave policies from recent years. Not only have many corporate employers sweetened their leave benefits to recruit and retain workers, 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 sick and elderly care. Such measures poll well among voters, and garner rare bipartisan support, including from the Trump administration. The new measure is expected to cost the government about $3.3 billion over five to 10 years.

The popularity of paid leave comes in part out of recognition that it is a priority for nearly every worker, says Sherry Leiwant, co-president of worker advocacy group A Better Balance. "People have been working towards this for years and years and years," she says.

But Leiwant and other advocates want to see national paid leave policies extend to every worker in the country. Federal employees make up only a small fraction of the overall workforce, and she says paid leave remains relatively uncommon. Fewer than one in five workers get it, and it's even more rare among low-wage workers.

Also, this latest congressional proposal would not allow federal employees to use the 12 weeks to care for elderly parents, or to get a surgical procedure, for example.

The State Department worker Williams argues that people may need leave for any number of reasons. She wishes she had leave when another child, a baby, passed away three years ago.

"The last thing you want to deal with is HR, but it ends up becoming a thing because there's no extended bereavement or leave for bereavement," she says.

In fact, 75 % of workers who currently take unpaid leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act do so for reasons other than new children, says Wendy Chun-Hoon, co-director at the advocacy group Family Values@Work.

She expects state legislatures to continue to push for broader paid family leave laws, which in turn will keep the pressure on the U.S. Congress.

"Now the country is in a really big and important conversation about national policy to provide paid family and medical leave for the entire workforce," Chun-Hoon says.

She says that's coming too. It's just a matter of time.

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ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Twelve weeks of paid parental leave - that's the new benefit about 2 million federal workers are on the cusp of getting thanks to a landmark proposal making its way through Congress. The House passed the measure today, and it's part of a proposal expected to pass the Senate and eventually become law. NPR's Yuki Noguchi reports on what this means for workers.

YUKI NOGUCHI, BYLINE: When her son was born four months ago, Becky Williams cobbled together whatever leave she could.

BECKY WILLIAMS: A certain amount of annual leave, a certain amount of sick leave - perhaps we could get a little bit of leave donated through, like, a leave bank or something. But at least in our particular situation, leave without pay was not an option.

NOGUCHI: Williams works as an analyst for the U.S. State Department. She got just three weeks off, not nearly enough time to spend with her new baby.

WILLIAMS: You definitely rely a lot on the videos and the pictures (laughter).

NOGUCHI: But now, for the first time, federal workers could qualify for three months off after the birth or adoption of a child.

WILLIAMS: The idea that you could be at home for 12 weeks would be a real game-changer, I think, for people, myself included.

NOGUCHI: Paid leave policies have rapidly expanded in recent years. Many companies sweeten their leave benefits to recruit and retain workers. Also, 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 sick and elderly care. Such measures poll well among voters and garner rare bipartisan support, including from the Trump administration. The estimated cost of the new measure is about $3 billion.

Sherry Leiwant is co-president of A Better Balance, a worker advocacy group. She says that support comes, in part, out of recognition that the need for leave touches nearly every worker.

SHERRY LEIWANT: People have been working towards this for years and years and years.

NOGUCHI: But advocates like Leiwant want to see national paid leave policies extend to every worker. After all, federal employees make up a small fraction of the overall workforce, and paid leave remains relatively uncommon. Fewer than 1 in 5 workers have it. It's even more rare among low-wage workers. Also, this latest congressional proposal would not allow federal employees to use the 12 weeks to care for elderly parents or to get a surgical procedure, for example. And Becky Williams, the State Department worker, argues people need leave for any number of reasons. She wishes she had leave when another child, a baby, passed away three years ago.

WILLIAMS: The unexpected loss of a child - the last thing you want to deal with is HR. But it ends up becoming a thing because there's no extended bereavement or leave for bereavement.

NOGUCHI: Wendy Chun-Hoon is co-director at Family Values @ Work. She says policymakers should look at why people take unpaid leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act.

WENDY CHUN-HOON: What we know from that experience is that 75% of leave takers actually take leave, need leave, for reasons other than new child care.

NOGUCHI: Chun-Hoon says she expects state legislatures to continue to push for broader paid family leave laws, which, in turn, will keep the pressure on the U.S. Congress.

CHUN-HOON: Now the country is in a really, you know, big and important conversation about national policy to provide paid family and medical leave for the entire workforce.

NOGUCHI: That's not a question of if, she says, but of when.

Yuki Noguchi, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.