By Allison Winter
WASHINGTON — Lawmakers have reached a landmark agreement on paid parental leave for federal workers that could institute paid time off for civilian employees for the first time.
The measure would give federal workers 12 weeks of paid leave to care for a newborn or adopted child — extending the same benefits currently given to the military to the 2.1 million civilian members of the federal workforce.
The United States is one of only two countries in the United Nations with no statutory national policy of paid maternity leave. The other is Papua New Guinea.
Lawmakers negotiated the agreement over months as part of the National Defense Authorization Act, an annual defense spending bill.
The “must-pass” defense bill has become a vehicle in recent years for a number of other policies, as Congress has been gridlocked on other legislation. The House is expected to vote on the massive defense bill las soon as Wednesday. It would then head to the Senate, and to Trump’s desk for his signature.
If approved, the parental benefits for federal employees would start in October 2020.
It’s official! My legislation to provide paid parental leave for 12 weeks to federal workers has been adopted! This is huge news and will affect millions of Americans and their families. No one should ever have to choose between building a career and building a family. https://t.co/9wcwrQmv2j
— Chrissy Houlahan (@RepHoulahan) December 10, 2019
The contentious paid parental leave measure was one of the last items to be finalized in the conference report. Democrats secured the massive expansion of benefits in exchange for including President Donald Trump’s coveted plans to create a new space force, a deal first reported by the Wall Street Journal.
The defense bill would authorize the U.S. Space Force as an independent military branch under the Air Force, the sixth Armed Service of the United States, according to the committee’s summary of the bill.
‘Significant first step’
Democrats hailed the paid leave provisions as a victory. But what they wound up with is more narrow than what many progressives hoped for: paid leave not just for parents of new children but also for those caring for other family members that may be sick or in-need.
Democrats vowed to push for more broad benefits in the future.
Rep. Carolyn Maloney, D-N.Y., who introduced legislation to provide paid family leave for federal workers, called the agreement a “tremendous victory.” But she said it is “not perfect,” and that she and other Democrats would push for broader support. She chaired a hearing Tuesday in the House Oversight and Reform Committee on the issue.
“We will be pushing very hard to expand that to the private sector and others,” Maloney said in closing remarks at a hearing. “I can’t tell you how thrilled I am that we passed that. Hopefully this will be a new day in America, and we can continue providing more support for families.”
Writing on Twitter, U.S. Rep. Chrissy Houlahan, D-6th District, celebrated the news.
“It’s official! My legislation to provide paid parental leave for 12 weeks to federal workers has been adopted!” she wrote. “This is huge news and will affect millions of Americans and their families. No one should ever have to choose between building a career and building a family.”
Houlahan added that she “[wanted] to thank” Smith and Maloney for their “leadership” and “tireless effort,” on behalf of the bill. She added that Maloney’s efforts on the issue “continue to inspire me. To all the advocates and legislators on both sides of this aisle, I know I speak for many in my community when I say: thank you,” Houlahan wrote.
I want to thank the leadership of @RepAdamSmith and the tireless effort of @RepMaloney. Her efforts on this issue continue to inspire me. To all the advocates and legislators on both sides of this aisle, I know I speak for many in my community when I say: thank you!
— Chrissy Houlahan (@RepHoulahan) December 10, 2019
House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md., called the deal a “significant first step” towards the broader goal to give broad paid leave benefits to all.
“I will continue to fight for paid family and medical leave for both federal employees and all private sector employees in our country,” Hoyer said in a statement.
‘Is paid family leave necessary?’
Republicans at the hearing said businesses should be able to make their own choices about how to provide support for their employees, and touted policies like the Trump tax cuts for corporations.
“Now that the ‘Tax Cut and Job Act’ is the law of the land, employers are providing increased wages, more benefits and more flexible schedules for their employees,” said Rep. Fred Keller, R-12th District..
“Not just millions of jobs that have been added since then … but companies are actually extending benefits to employees because we have a good economy,” said Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, the ranking member of the committee. Jordan said the best way to support families is with a strong economy.
“Is paid family leave necessary?” Jordan asked. “It is certainly a well-intentioned policy but an obligation we have to thoughtfully consider.
Paid leave for all workers?
Eight states and the District of Columbia currently provide paid family leave, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
Democrats would like to see broader support for workers, like the FAMILY Act sponsored by U.S. Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., It would give family and medical leave insurance to all workers.
First introduced in 2013, the bill has been gaining traction over the years as more Democrats push for federal support when employees have to take time off to care for a new baby or sick family member.
DeLauro’s bill has 201 cosponsors. U.S. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y. (D-N.Y.) has a companion bill in the Senate with 34 cosponors.
It creates a payroll tax of 2 cents for every 10 dollars of wages. Workers would be eligible for 60 days or 12 weeks of partial income for the birth or adoption of a child, or the injury or illness of a family member.
Currently, the Family Medical Leave Act requires employers to give employees job-protected unpaid leave for such circumstances. The FAMILY act would give them an income while they take that time off.
“Income support for new parents is not enough,” DeLauro told the Oversight and Reform Committee Tuesday morning. “Seventy-five percent of workers who take FMLA do so to address health — their own or that of a loved one.