So You Want to Have a Baby? What to Know About Capitol Hill Policies

blossoms So You Want to Have a Baby? What to Know About Capitol Hill Policies

(Alex Muller/CQ Roll Call Illustration)

What happens to your life on Capitol Hill if you’ve got a baby on the way? While leave policies vary among offices, there are several key pieces of information and terms that might be helpful in making a graceful exit for maternity/paternity leave and knowing what to talk about in your office.

Hill Navigator is going to skip the section about how the stork arrives with a baby in tow. While this space may be ripe for a Sheryl Sandberg-esque conversation for what having a baby means for your career, this particular column will focus on the specifics of leave policies and how a staffer can better prepare for a significant life change. And for those curious about why I’m broaching this particularly personal topic, see the final question.

The key to understanding maternity/paternity leave policies on Capitol Hill is to know this: They are not the same for every office. All 535 fiefdoms make their own rules, which can be based on anything from time spent on staff to gender to what type of birth the mother has. So each guideline below is just that — a map for investigating what your office has to offer. Hill Navigator strongly encourages you to read your office handbook, contact the Office of Compliance (compliance.gov or 202-724-9250), and take stock of your accrued vacation and personal time before coming up with a plan.

Maternity Leave. It’s Not Always the Same for Everyone

Q. My last office gave me 12 paid weeks maternity leave, but for my second child I’m in a new House office and only get six paid weeks. Shouldn’t I get more?

A. Well, I can’t speak to the ethics of maternity leave time, but I can confirm that leave policies vary significantly across offices.

Our friends at the House Chief Administrative Office commissioned a House Compensation Study in 2010 that outlined different leave policies across offices. One thing the plans had in common: They were all different. So what works for you might not work for your friend in the office across the hall. It also means that the paid time off you received in your last government job is different from what your office offers now. Whatever office you are in, your paid maternity leave policy is subject to their rules and regulations.

FMLA. It’s Yours. It Just Might Not Be Paid.

Q. My office doesn’t give maternity leave. But don’t they have to give FMLA?

A. FMLA! Four magic letters that spell out maternity and paternity leave for many new parents.

The Family and Medical Leave Act guarantees your job and your health insurance benefits will still be there for you if you’re required to take time off for a qualifying life event. And guess what? Having a baby is one of those events.

The good news: Hill staffers are eligible for FMLA through the Congressional Accountability Act. Under the CAA, you are required to work in a legislative office for 12 months with at least 1,250 hours of service immediately preceding your leave before you are eligible for FMLA benefits. This means if you (or your partner) are considering a job move within a year of your due date, your new office is not obligated to extend any of the FMLA benefits. A move from one Hill office to another is a safer bet — the CAA counts time on Capitol Hill as cumulative, even if it’s divided between different offices. But if you switch jobs to a different branch of government and immediately find out you have a baby on the way, you could be in a situation with no FMLA benefits at all.

But there are a number of Hill offices that won’t leave you stranded. According to the 2010 survey, 60 percent of House offices offered FMLA benefits without a requisite service time. But keep in mind that without the year of service, you won’t have the protections of CAA to enforce whatever agreement you come up with.

Now for the bad news: Not all FMLA time is created equal — it is up to your office to decide how much of the leave will be paid. The FMLA does not require those 12 weeks of time off to be paid, only that your job be available when you return and that your health insurance benefits continue while you are out. According to the 2010 House Compensation Study, 90 percent of House offices offered some type of paid leave under the FMLA. But that still gives you 10 percent that don’t. Which can sting. A lot.

Q. I want to take four months off. But I only get six weeks paid. What are my options?

A. Based on the House Compensation Study, six weeks of paid time off was the most common answer (33 percent) for offices giving paid FMLA time. (For those keeping count, of the offices that offered paid FMLA time, 23 percent gave 12 paid weeks; 17 percent gave four paid weeks, and 11 percent gave eight paid weeks.)

But many offices will allow some flexible options, including:

  • Taking accrued sick leave/vacation leave/personal leave/administrative leave. See if these days can carry over from previous years. Some offices even allow accrued annual leave from previous employment. If your office does not have a policy, then ask. The dynamic nature of Capitol Hill means that office policies are not obligated to be static — perhaps there is a change that will benefit you and future employees taking leave.
  • Working flex time or remotely, if that option is available to you. Telecommuting has become more popular and will allow you more time at home with your baby.
  • Taking intermittent leave rather than a single period, which may work if you can go back to work one or two days a week during your leave. Under the FMLA, employees are allowed to take intermittent leave, though it is not required to be paid.

The key is to talk to your office ahead of time and see what the expectations are while you are gone and what paid and unpaid options are available to you. Some offices allow employees to take unpaid leave past the 12-week FMLA period and still return to their jobs. Other offices are less flexible, and in that case, it is better to know and understand that ahead of time rather than find out while you have a newborn baby at home.

Q. D.C. has better laws than this! And my Hill office is based here. Shouldn’t my leave fall under the D.C. FMLA rules?

A. Hate to be the one to tell you this, but you work for the federal government, not D.C. But for our D.C.-employed friends, the D.C. Family and Medical Leave Act provides 16 weeks of medical leave AND 16 weeks of family leave per two-month period for businesses in the District that employ 20 or more people. Of course, the law does not require the leave time to be paid.

Q. What is this rumor about Hill Navigator going on Maternity Leave? Is that just FishbowlDC talking?

A. I confess I made this last question up. But it’s true: Hill Navigator is saying goodbye this August, taking time off to welcome a baby boy.

But I won’t be far. I have several columns slated to run in my absence, and I trust the savvy editors at Roll Call to fill in while I’m away. In the meantime, keep sending in your questions about all things Capitol Hill.

And for all the other expectant parents out there who are going through leave confusion — I share your concern from my own firsthand experience. I’ve done my homework to see what my company offers. I’ve counted vacation days and balanced FMLA leave weeks with how much time my husband and I think we can spend with our new arrival.

The FMLA has come a long way in the past 20 years, but it still has a ways to go. Perhaps there will be even more flexibility for working parents in our lifetimes.

Here’s hoping.

Correction: An earlier version of this post misstated who commissioned the 2010 House Compensation Study.

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