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Paid Maternity, Paternity Leave Coming for Congressional Staff?

Obama is calling for paid family leave for federal employees, but what does it mean for congressional staff? (Tom Williams / CQ/Roll Call)

Paid maternity and paternity leave could be coming soon for most federal employees.  

In a recent statement posted on LinkedIn , Senior White House Adviser Valerie Jarrett outlined President Barack Obama’s call for more paid family leave and sick days for workers, writing, "The President will sign a Presidential Memorandum  that will ensure federal employees have access to at least 6 weeks of paid sick leave when a new child arrives and propose that Congress offer 6 weeks of paid administrative leave as well."  

So what does this mean for congressional staff? Unfortunately, not much. At least not yet.  

A presidential memorandum alone is not sufficient to create workplace changes for congressional staff. Here's why: The Constitution prevents the executive branch from governing congressional workers.  The president can make changes for executive branch employees, but each congressional office decides its own rules.  

Jarrett said the president will propose Congress offer six weeks of paid administrative leave as well. Requests for clarification from the White House were not returned, but USA Today has reported that this means the president will ask Congress to bestow such benefits to congressional staff as well.  

Congress has made workplace changes before, to the benefit of approximately 21,000 staffers employed by the legislative branch. Until the 1995 passage of the Congressional Accountability Act, many workplace protections — such as the Family and Medical Leave Act — didn't apply to congressional staff. That legislation tightened requirements that Congress adhere closer to federal law in its own governance.  

Approximately 9 of every 10 House offices already offer some type of paid maternity or paternity leave under the FMLA, according to the 2010 House Compensation Study commissioned by the Office of the Chief Administrative Officer.  

But that means that nearly 10 percent of Hill offices do not offer any paid maternity or paternity leave. And nearly 25 percent of offices that do provide paid leave offer less than Obama's proposed six weeks. This includes the office of Speaker John A. Boehner, R-Ohio, which provides two weeks of paid leave for staffers for the birth or adoption of a child, with the option to take 10 additional weeks unpaid.  

The president further detailed his family leave plan in his State of the Union address. He reiterated his call for passing legislation (the Healthy Families Act) that would provide paid sick days for American workers, comments that were met with a standing ovation.  

Several things are worth noting about the aforementioned changes in family leave policies and congressional staff. First, Congress is not obligated to do much of anything the president asks. Even if other federal employees receive such benefits, Congress can dictate the rules for its own staff. Second, Congress has not been a willing partner for much of the president’s agenda in his time in office, and might be even less likely to be one now, given the political divisiveness that pits the Democratic president against a GOP-controlled Congress.  

Third, the data on congressional offices' maternity and paternity leave used in this article are from 2010, yet it is the best data available. Seventy-three new members of Congress were sworn in this month, and views on parental leave — paternity leave in particular — are actively evolving . It is possible that six weeks of paid leave will eventually become the norm for congressional staff.  

Finally, the norm is what Congress could stand to change. The "model employee handbook” each new member receives at orientation and swearing-in has the default option for zero paid weeks off under the FMLA.  

This handbook is created and distributed by the Office of Employment Counsel, part of the House Administration Committee. The language, while not explicitly discouraging, provides a clear path to new offices for not offering paid leave at all.  

If Congress wants to change the culture on paid family leave, it can start with its orientation materials.  

Rather than making the default paid leave be zero weeks, it could be six weeks paid, with a mention that this is what other federal workers receive. Assuming the president follows through, six weeks of paid leave would become, by definition, the new "norm."  

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