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Full FMLA Benefits? Not So for Congressional Staff

Two FMLA provisions to care for service members have not been extended to Capitol Hill staff. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

Capitol Hill employees are in limbo  when it comes to workplace rights, or at least when it comes to a key update to the Family and Medical Leave Act.  

An expansion of the FMLA extending time off for employees to care for members of the armed services and prepare for deployment has become law, but Congress has yet to take action to adopt it for the thousands of employees who make up their congressional staff.  

The expanded FMLA provisions would provide Capitol Hill employees, including House and Senate staffers, Capitol Police, Congressional Budget Office, Architect of the Capitol, Office of the Attending Physician, Office of Compliance and Office of Congressional Accountability Services employees with up to 26 weeks time off to care for a spouse injured in active duty, or up to 12 weeks off to prepare for an upcoming move related to deployment. Under FMLA, the time off would be unpaid, but would provide job protections and health insurance.  

These expansion provisions were included as part of both the National Defense Authorization Act for fiscal 2008 and fiscal 2010, though it did not explicitly state the effect on the congressional staff and related agencies.  

The FMLA expansion provisions are included in the model employee handbook distributed by the House Administration Committee, and are unlikely to affect many D.C.-based congressional staff, as many offices do provide unpaid leave under such circumstances.  

Sources who spoke to CQ Roll Call said they believe district office employees, or agency employees such as Capitol Police or the Architect of the Capitol employees, might be less likely to speak up and ask for such time off. And those who do ask for it are not guaranteed to receive it until the FMLA expansion has become law for congressional staff.  

In the House Administration Committee's model employee handbook, the expanded FMLA provisions are there alongside details about overall FMLA rights for staffers. The 1995 Congressional Accountability Act gave legislative branch employees the right to take up to 12 weeks of unpaid family and medical leave.  

That law also included a provision requiring Congress to specify how future employment law would apply to the more than 30,000 legislative branch employees. But in the case of both of these FMLA expansion provisions, Congress did not specify its intent. The lack of action leaves the benefit in limbo (unless specifically addressed in an employment manual or handbook) until new regulations are approved by Congress.  

The Office of Compliance  is taking action to rectify the situation, Barbara Camens, chairwoman of the Board of the Office of Compliance, told CQ Roll Call. The board is drafting proposed regulations to be published in the Congressional Record and after a set public comment period, Congress will have the opportunity to vote on the regulations.  

“Our workforce is over 30,000 employees, many of whom live and work in the D.C. area, which has a lot of active duty and reserve military,” said Scott Mulligan, deputy director at the Office of Compliance. “While we know many employers on the Hill work with military members and their families, we’re working to ensure that the regulations applying to all our community reflect these entitlements.”  

It’s not unusual for staffers in both personal and committee offices to be unaware of their workplace benefits . Nor is it unusual for Congress to delay its intent on such benefits. But there is some understanding — however implicit or contentious — that Capitol Hill staffers are opting in to such work conditions. The same cannot be assumed for the workforce that makes up agencies such as the Capitol Police or the Architect of the Capitol, for whom such benefits could be critical.  

Capitol Hill policies are still playing catch-up and are dependent on Congress' timeline for voting on the proposed regulations.  

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Topics: fmla