Comment period underway on paid family leave policies for Capitol Hill workers

Process of replacing the patchwork of policies with standard paid leave has begun

Susan Tsui Grundmann, executive director of the Office of Congressional Workplace Rights, testifies before the House Appropriations  Legislative Branch Subcommittee.  (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
Susan Tsui Grundmann, executive director of the Office of Congressional Workplace Rights, testifies before the House Appropriations Legislative Branch Subcommittee. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
Posted December 2, 2020 at 5:48pm

Paid family leave on Capitol Hill has long been governed by a patchwork of policies depending on what office or department employees work for, but interim guidance and a new proposal for Legislative Branch employees could set a baseline for family leave policies.

The Office of Congressional Workplace Rights is soliciting feedback and public comment on the proposal until Dec. 17. With the wide-ranging policies from office to office, staffers now have a chance to speak up on what they’d like to see implemented.

The new proposed regulation is part of a larger overhaul of benefits for federal workers, under the Federal Employee Paid Leave Act, which the president signed into law late last year.

But just because Congress passes laws governing federal workers doesn’t mean that their own staff reap the benefits. Congress routinely exempts itself from federal labor laws and others governing federal employees.

Thousands of staffers on Capitol Hill are covered under the Family and Medical Leave Act, but time is unpaid and many staffers are reluctant to use the full 12 weeks provided. Paid leave has varied widely between offices and some don’t have an official policy at all, relying instead on ad hoc policies issued on a case-by-case basis.

For years, staffers have been navigating a Wild West of 535 fiefdoms with their own rules, based on anything from time spent on staff, to gender, to what type of birth the mother has. Office handbooks could sometimes offer clues, but for decades staffers were advised to take stock of their accrued vacation and personal time and hope for the best.

The Office of Congressional Workplace Rights is moving forward with the process of implementing FEPLA in the Legislative Branch. While these benefits went into place on Oct. 1, 2020, Congress is operating under interim guidance that does not have the same force of law as final regulations.

Under these new proposed regulations, published in the Congressional Record on Nov. 16, staff in the House, Senate and some Legislative Branch agency employees would be allowed to take 12 weeks of paid parental leave within one year of the birth of a child, adoption or foster care placement.

“Covered employees” on Capitol Hill include House and Senate staffers, Capitol Police, the Library of Congress, the Architect of the Capitol and an array of other support agencies within the Legislative Branch. Excluded are contract workers like the food service professionals who make and serve meals across the Capitol campus.

Spouses employed by the same office would have to share the same 12-week leave entitlement for a birth or placement, so they may be limited to a combined total of 12 weeks of FMLA leave for the same birth or placement of a child. But spouses employed by different offices on Capitol Hill would each get a separate 12-week FMLA leave entitlement for a birth or placement.

While executive branch employers may require employees using parental leave under FEPLA to agree in writing to return to work for the agency for at least 12 weeks after returning from leave, Legislative Branch workers are expressly exempt from this limitation. Congressional workers are also not required to pay back government contributions to an employee’s health coverage while on paid parental leave if the employee does not return to work after using the leave.

The OCWR did not respond to a request for comment. The office did conduct an informational “brown bag lunch series” for Legislative Branch employees on paid parental leave on Sept. 23, ahead of the informal guidance going into place.

The 30-day comment period is under way, but stamps may be required. Comments must be made in writing to OCWR, addressed to: Executive Director, Office of Congressional Workplace Rights, 110 Second Street, S.E., Room LA–200, Washington, D.C. 20540–1999.

The agency requests that commenters also send an electronic copy of the comments via email to Alexander.Ruvinsky@ocwr.gov or via fax to the executive director at 202–426–1913.

The next step in the process is for the OCWR Board of Directors to consider the public comments and adopt regulations. They’ll send the regulations and recommendations on how Congress should approve the regulations to the House and Senate for publishing in the Congressional Record.

The final regulations would be referred to committees in the House and Senate, and wrapped into either a resolution in each chamber, a concurrent resolution or a joint resolution, and then will be published again in the Congressional Record as the final regulations.