For The Record

Congress reaches deal on paid family leave for federal employees

By: - December 11, 2019 8:49 am

Georgia U.S. Rep. Rick Allen has introduced a bill that would block federal aid for schools that do not offer in-person classes. Courtesy Architect of the Capitol.

WASHINGTON — Lawmakers have reached a landmark agreement on paid parental leave for federal workers that could institute paid time off for civilian employees for the first time.

The measure would give federal workers 12 weeks of paid leave to care for a newborn or adopted child — extending the same benefits currently given to the military to the 2.1 million civilian members of the federal workforce.

The United States is one of only two countries in the United Nations with no statutory national policy of paid maternity leave. The other is Papua New Guinea. 

Lawmakers negotiated the agreement over months as part of the National Defense Authorization Act, an annual defense spending bill. 

The “must-pass” defense bill has become a vehicle in recent years for a number of other policies, as Congress has been gridlocked on other legislation. The House is expected to vote on the massive defense bill las soon as Wednesday. It would then head to the Senate, and to President Donald Trump’s desk for his signature.

If approved, the parental benefits for federal employees would start in October 2020.  

The contentious paid parental leave measure was one of the last items to be finalized in the conference report. Democrats secured the massive expansion of benefits in exchange for including President Donald Trump’s coveted plans to create a new space force, a deal first reported by the Wall Street Journal. 

The defense bill would authorize the U.S. Space Force as an independent military branch under the Air Force, the sixth Armed Service of the United States, according to the committee’s summary of the bill.

‘Significant first step’

Democrats hailed the paid leave provisions as a victory. But what they wound up with is more narrow than what many progressives hoped for: paid leave not just for parents of new children but also for those caring for other family members that may be sick or in-need.

House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) called the deal a “significant first step” towards the larger goal to give broad paid leave benefits to all.

“I will continue to fight for paid family and medical leave for both federal employees and all private sector employees in our country,” Hoyer said in a statement.

‘There is nothing free’

Republicans at the hearing said businesses should be able to make their own choices about how to provide support for their employees, and touted policies like the Trump tax cuts for corporations.

“It sounds wonderful, but we all know at the end of the day, there is nothing free, and at some point there is an enormous cost associated with it,” said Rep. Jody Hice (R-Ga.).

Republicans also questioned whether the program would really help low-income workers or put another tax on their payroll that they may not take advantage of. 

Rep. Glenn Grothman (R-Wis.) asked how family leave affects men. 

“We get briefings on this and everything’s focused on the women, women, women, which is good, but is there any analysis on the man side?” Grothman asked.

Paid leave for all workers?

Eight states and the District of Columbia currently provide paid family leave, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Georgia is not one of them.

Democrats would like to see broader support for workers, like the FAMILY Act from Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.). It would give family and medical leave insurance to all workers.  

First introduced in 2013, the bill has been gaining traction over the years as more Democrats push for federal support when employees have to take time off to care for a new baby or sick family member.

DeLauro’s bill has 201 cosponsors, including Georgia House Democrats Rep. Hank Johnson of Lithonia, Rep. John Lewis of Atlanta, Rep. Lucy McBath of Marietta and Rep. David Scott of Atlanta.

It creates a payroll tax of 2 cents for every 10 dollars of wages. Workers would be eligible for 60 days or 12 weeks of partial income for the birth or adoption of a child, or the injury or illness of a family member.

Currently, the Family Medical Leave Act requires employers to give employees job-protected unpaid leave for such circumstances. The FAMILY act would give them an income while they take that time off.

“Income support for new parents is not enough,” DeLauro told the Oversight and Reform Committee Tuesday morning. “Seventy-five percent of workers who take FMLA do so to address health — their own or that of a loved one.”

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Allison Winter
Allison Winter

Allison Winter is a Washington D.C. correspondent for States Newsroom, a network of state-based nonprofit news outlets that includes the Georgia Recorder.