A Guarantee of Quality Time

Posted March 5, 2008 at 6:50pm

New parents have plenty of worries, from impending concerns over whether their newborn is getting enough sleep to long-term anxiety about how to pay for that hefty college tuition.

But many federal employees also have an additional worry — whether they have enough sick and vacation days saved up to take time off to care for their babies — since the federal government guarantees new parents only 12 weeks of unpaid leave.

And that, according to Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-N.Y.), just is not acceptable.

“This may work for the lucky families,” Maloney said. “Most families need two paychecks to pay the bills.”

Help could soon be on the way, however.

The Joint Economic Committee and House Oversight and Government Reform Subcommittee on the Federal Workforce, Postal Service and the District of Columbia are scheduled to co-host a hearing today on the Federal Employees Paid Parental Leave Act, legislation introduced in 2007 by Maloney to provide at least eight weeks of guaranteed full pay and benefits for all federal employees, including fathers, who take time off following the birth or adoption of a child.

Aside from providing those eight weeks of paid leave, the bill also would let federal workers use any accumulated annual or sick leave to increase their paid time off up to the 12 weeks of leave guaranteed by the Family and Medical Leave Act.

Legislative branch workers and other federal employees have different benefit programs, and in Congress, each Member office has its own benefits. Studies have shown that while some Members offer generous paid leave, others provide little, if any at all.

A 2006 report commissioned by the Chief Administrative Officer found that 80 percent of House offices offer some paid family leave, typically 7.6 weeks. In the Senate, 96 percent of offices offer paid leave, usually around six weeks, according to the study.

Those parents who work for offices providing little to no leave often are forced to pick between caring for their child or going back to work so they can pay their bills, Maloney said.

“I don’t think people should live that way,” said Maloney, the JEC’s vice chairwoman. “I think the work-family balance is just an important part of life.”

So, apparently, do many of her Congressional colleagues. Co-sponsors of the legislation include Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.), Oversight and Government Reform ranking member Tom Davis (R-Va.) and Rep. Danny Davis (D-Ill.), who chairs the Federal Workforce Subcommittee.

And supporters say the measure is needed not only to help new parents, but also to ensure that the federal government maintains a competitive work force.

“In this day and age, it’s absolutely essential that we provide the best benefits we can to our employees,” said Chief Administrative Officer Dan Beard, who is scheduled to testify at today’s hearing. “This is a competitive world we are in, and I think to attract and retain a good work force, we are going to have to provide a solid benefit package.”

Beard also is seeking to improve an array of other House benefits, including providing better dental and eye care plans, he said.

“It’s an issue that I want to work at,” he said.

Studies show that the federal government falls behind the private sector in providing family leave. A JEC report released on Wednesday found that about three-quarters of Fortune 100 companies give new mothers some form of paid leave, typically lasting six to eight weeks.

Maloney wants to change that.

“We should be setting the standard for the nation to follow,” she said.

The United States also fails in its leave policies compared to other industrialized nations; a Government Accountability Office report released in 2007 concluded that Americans spend more time at work than parents in other countries but get less paid time off or flexible schedules for their child care responsibilities.

“We need to do more to make sure moms and dads are given the time they need to care for their families,” said Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), who chairs the JEC. “There’s nothing more wonderful than having children, and nothing more demanding.”

Aside from Maloney’s measure in the House, action also has been taken in the Senate to address the leave issue. Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) introduced similar legislation early last year, but that measure has yet to make it out of committee.

Maloney has introduced several other measures this session designed to help American workers better care for their children, including a bill that would strengthen the FMLA to apply to employers with 25 workers, not 50 or more.

She also introduced a bill that would amend FMLA to provide leave to care for a domestic partner, same-sex spouse, parent-in-law, adult child, sibling or grandparent if that person has a serious health condition.

Aside from Beard, a range of other government and union officials are scheduled to testify at the hearing today, which will start at 9:30 a.m. in Room 2154 of the Rayburn House Office Building.