Congress reaches landmark deal on paid family leave for federal employees   

U.S. Capitol Complex. Photo from United States Capitol Police.

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 as soon as Wednesday. It would then head to the Senate, and to Trump’s desk for his signature.

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

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 a summary.

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.

Democrats vowed to push for more broad benefits in the future.

Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-N.Y.), who introduced legislation to provide paid family leave for federal workers, called the agreement a “tremendous victory.”

But she said it is “not perfect,” and that she and other Democrats would push for broader support. She chaired a hearing Tuesday in the U.S. House Oversight and Reform Committee on the issue.

“We will be pushing very hard to expand that to the private sector and others,” Maloney said in closing remarks at a hearing. “I can’t tell you how thrilled I am that we passed that. Hopefully this will be a new day in America, and we can continue providing more support for families.” 

“It seems we were successful, but the victory lap is somewhat circumscribed because there is still more work to do,” Rep. Gerald Connolly (D-Va.) said at a hearing on the issue.  “We must continue to fight for paid family care-giving leave and leave to cover one’s own medical needs.”

In Virginia, less than 17 percent of workers have paid leave through their employers, Connolly said.

“We must make sure that women and parents have the benefit … regardless of income, regardless of employer,” said Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.).

“We need a floor through which we are not going to allow people to crash through, when they have an unexpected illness or give birth to children. Every parent deserves to be able to work for someone that is required to give them a minimum of paid family leave.”

“I have a dream as well for this great country and I try to keep hope alive, but I know that I have to take action and do the work, and it is clear that only a comprehensive approach like the FAMILY act will protect our workers and I urge all of us to support it,” said Rep. Brenda Lawrence (D-Mich.), referring to legislation that would create a national paid family and medical leave program. 

House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) called the deal a “significant first step” towards the broader 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.

Is paid family leave necessary?

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 such as the Trump tax cuts for corporations.

Republicans such as Rep. Fred Keller (R-Pa.) claim that because of the Tax Cut and Job Act, “employers are providing increased wages, more benefits and more flexible schedules for their employees.”

“Companies are actually extending benefits to employees because we have a good economy,” said Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio). Jordan said the best way to support families is with a strong economy.

“Is paid family leave necessary?” Jordan asked. “It is certainly a well-intentioned policy but an obligation we have to thoughtfully consider.

“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.

Florida isn’t one of them, but some state lawmakers in the Florida Legislature are pursuing paid family leave legislation in the 2020 session that starts Jan. 14.

Democrats in Congress would like to see broader support for workers, such as 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 co-sponsors. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) has a companion bill in the Senate with 34 co-sponsors.

It creates a payroll tax of 2 cents for every $10 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.

Florida Phoenix editor-in-chief Diane Rado contributed to this story.