Hill Offices Differ on Maternity, Paternity Leave

Posted January 31, 2007 at 6:49pm

When Senate aide Lisa Sutherland decided to have a baby in the late 1990s she couldn’t have asked for better employment conditions. Not only did her boss, Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska), give her 12 weeks off with full pay, but when she returned to the office he let her work part-time, bring her newborn to meetings and use his hideaway as a “little nursery,” complete with playpen and changing table.

Not everyone is so lucky.

Per the Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993, Congressional offices (like other employers) are required to give up to 12 weeks of unpaid family and medical leave per year, including for both men and women to care for their newborn, adopted or newly placed foster child if they have worked 12 months in a Congressional office and logged 1,250 hours of service in the year preceding the leave.

But that’s where the uniformity stops.

Whether a Member gives any paid leave during this time is left to the discretion of the individual office (as are such things as sick leave and vacation time), meaning Congress is a patchwork of essentially 535 different maternity/paternity leave policies.

Case in point: New parents who work for Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) are eligible for up to nine weeks of paid leave. But those female aides who work for Boxer’s Golden State counterpart, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D), receive only four weeks paid when they give birth, while birth fathers and adoptive parents receive two paid weeks off.

Some in Congress want to change this.

In early January, Stevens introduced a bill that would give federal employees eight weeks of paid maternity leave and one week of paid paternity or new adoptive parent leave. And today, Sen. Chris Dodd (D-Conn.), who authored the FMLA, plans to announce his intentions to introduce a bill that would (among other things) provide for paid maternity and paternity leave for both public- and private-sector employees.

So what’s typical?

According to 2006 data produced for the Chief Administrative Office, in the House, 80.2 percent of the 141 offices that responded to a survey offered paid leave averaging 7.6 weeks for the care of a newborn by a birth parent. Meanwhile, data collected by the Secretary of the Senate’s office over that same period showed that 96.2 percent of the 79 offices that answered the question offered paid leave at an average of 6.1 weeks. Similar average paid leave also was given by these offices for adoption or for the care of foster children.

Roll Call’s unscientific sampling of Hill offices seems to support this, with most offices that returned calls saying they gave a minimum of six weeks paid leave to women, and often also to men, to care for their newborn or newly adopted child. Most also allowed employees to apply sick or vacation time toward the remaining unpaid leave.

Both Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.), for example, offer up to 12 weeks of paid leave regardless of gender. And Dodd offers up to eight weeks of paid leave for women and men in his personal office.

But most of these offices surveyed do give more paid time off to women, who, after all, both carry and deliver the child.

Among some of the offices who offered different amounts of paid leave by gender were: Stevens (12 weeks maternity leave, two weeks paternity leave); New York Democratic Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (eight weeks for the mother, six weeks for the father); Democratic Nebraska Sen. Ben Nelson (eight weeks for the mother, two weeks for the father); Alaska Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski (eight weeks for the mother, two weeks for the father); and House Minority Whip Roy Blunt (the Missouri Republican offers six weeks maternity leave and one week paternity leave).

The discrepancy between offices worries Deven McGraw of the National Partnership for Women & Families, who said her group supports paid leave for all workers but asserted that policies that provide more time off for women “might actually lead to disincentives to hire women.” Moreover, she added: “It sends a message that men are not as important [when it comes] to taking care of very young children.”

The FMLA, which only mandates unpaid leave, does not differentiate between men and women when it comes to taking time off to care for a newborn, adopted or foster child.

Some offices on the House side said that their paid leave policies were informal because the issue rarely presents itself.

When Stacey Bernards, spokeswoman for House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.), gave birth last year she received paid leave, though she declined to say how much. “There’s no set rule about paid leave. Individual staffers work with the chief of staff and Hoyer to determine what their needs are,” she said, noting how few births the office had had.

Rep. Nathan Deal’s (R-Ga.) office also has no written policy on paid maternity or paternity leave. Chris Riley, Deal’s chief of staff, said in 14 years only one employee had applied for maternity or paternity leave. In that case, the office offered him 10 days of paid administrative leave in addition to paid days off when Congress was not in session over a nine-week period.

And Jeff Carroll, chief of staff to Rep. Frank Pallone (D-N.J.), said that only in the past three years had the office moved to create a written paid-leave policy — mainly because of the scarcity of births.

“I think it’s fair to say a lot of offices haven’t dealt with this because the staff are younger and these things sort of don’t come up,” said Carroll, who said he plans to take time off when his wife gives birth in March.

Some women on the Hill said the issue of maternity leave was not a burning topic.

“Until very recently I haven’t known many women who have babies” while working in Congress, said Bernards. “I think it’s a difficult place to work and have a family and … it seems like women tend to have babies later in life at a point they would be senior staffers and there doesn’t seem to be as many senior staffer women as men.”

“I don’t know if a bunch of my girlfriends who don’t have children were sitting thinking about it. I know I wasn’t” before kids, said Stacy Kerr, an aide to Pelosi who also had a baby last year.

Still, maternity and paternity leave does appear to be a touchy subject for some offices. Well over a dozen offices contacted did not respond to calls inquiring about the matter, including the office of the Senate’s only obstetrician, Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.).

As for whether the men of Capitol Hill take the time off when it is offered, aides interviewed for this article said they had — although typically not for the maximum period.

“I think there is a bit of a stigma about men taking time off on the Hill and in life generally,” said Carroll.

Some offices have made an effort to erase such stigmas.

Joe Shoemaker, a spokesman for Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), said that not long after the birth of his premature twins, he started “coming back into work” and visiting “them in the evenings” at the neonatal intensive care unit. (Durbin office policy allows a minimum of six weeks paid leave for both men and women with additional time granted depending on the woman or baby’s health.)

When Durbin heard he wasn’t using his leave, Shoemaker said he was summoned to the Senator’s office. “It was the only time in five years Dick Durbin was really furious at me and he called me into the office and shut the door and said, ‘We don’t burn paternity leave in this office. … with kids you got to do what you got to do.’”