Senate’s Family Leave Plan Expanding?

Posted March 19, 2007 at 6:28pm

New moms who work in the Senate could count on eight weeks of guaranteed financial help if Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) has his way.

Stevens introduced the Senate Family Leave Act last week, offering legislation that would provide Senate employees seven weeks of paid leave to recover after giving birth to a child, plus an additional week to care for the new baby.

One week of paid leave also would be allotted to employees who become new fathers, along with parents who adopt or take in a foster child.

Current law provides 12 weeks of unpaid leave for new parents. But many families cannot afford to take that much time off without getting a paycheck, so the bill serves to give new parents added support, a Stevens staffer said.

“He just feels it’s the right environment now for this legislation to move,” the Stevens aide said, later adding: “He’s always been a supporter of families. He’s a father of six.”

The bill has bipartisan support, as Democratic Sens. Robert Byrd (W.Va.) and Daniel Inouye (Hawaii) have signed on as co-sponsors.

“The Senate is a family,” said Byrd, who already provides paid maternity leave to staffers. “We care about those who commit themselves to public service here, and this policy reflects that kind of family care.”

The legislation would amend the Congressional Accountability Act, which currently follows the guidelines set by the Family and Medical Leave Act. The FMLA provides up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave for both men and women to care for their newborn. Adoptive and foster parents also get time to take care of their newest family member.

The measure mirrors legislation Stevens introduced in January that would provide paid leave for executive branch employees. But because the Senate follows CAA guidelines, two bills had to be introduced, the staffer said.

“It will provide time for mothers to recover after childbirth without having to worry about the financial burdens that come with unpaid leave,” Stevens said in January.

Providing paid leave also could be a way to attract and retain Senate employees, Byrd said.

Neither bill applies to the House, however.

In addition to providing leave immediately after the birth of a child, both bills also give parents eight hours of paid leave to take a child to a doctor’s appointment, meet with a child’s teacher or attend a school function.

“It’s just so they can be actively involved in their child’s life without having to decide, ‘Do I take Johnny to get his teeth cleaned, or do I work an extra eight hours to put food on the table?’” the staffer said.

To qualify for all the leave, employees would have to had worked 12 months in a Senate office with at least 1,250 hours of employment during the year before the leave, guidelines similar to those found in the FMLA.

The newest measure also would apply to employees of the Government Accountability Office and the Library of Congress.

GAO officials declined to comment on the legislation because they had yet to review it. A Library spokesman did not return a call seeking comment.

But after Stevens introduced the executive branch bill in January, his office received “tons and tons” of support mail from federal employees, the staffer said.

While Stevens gives 12 weeks of paid leave for women who have given birth and two weeks for fathers, others might not give as much.

The FMLA is the standard for unpaid leave, but it remains up to individual employers to determine how much paid leave to give, if any. That means that in Congress, there are 535 separate paternity/maternity leave policies.

Some offices have very liberal leave policies; others are more strict. A 2006 survey conducted for the Chief Administrative Office found that of the 141 House offices that took part, 80.2 percent gave an average of 7.6 weeks paid leave for the care of a newborn by a birth parent.

The Secretary of the Senate’s office conducted a similar survey over the same period: 96.2 percent of the 79 offices that participated gave an average of 6.1 weeks of paid leave. Offices gave similar leave policies for adopted and foster parents.

And while the Stevens bills would not apply to House employees, public- and private-sector employees across the country eventually could be granted similar paid leave policies.

Sen. Chris Dodd (D-Conn.) is expected to introduce legislation in coming weeks that will give workers at least six weeks of paid leave for the birth or adoption of a child.

An update of the FMLA, the bill also would give time to employees to care for a sick family member or during their own serious illness.

Stevens aides have met with Dodd staffers, and the two offices are working to “get a bill together that can be very bipartisan,” the Stevens staffer said.