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Answers on Paid Leave Hard for Staffers to Find

Norton clarified she offers staff 12 weeks paid parental leave. (CQ Roll Call File Photo)
Norton clarified she offers staff 12 weeks paid parental leave. (CQ Roll Call File Photo)

If a member of Congress has a generous parental leave policy but the staff doesn’t know about it, what’s it worth?  On Monday, several House Democrats stood together to announce legislation that would provide federal employees with six weeks paid leave for the birth or adoption of a child. President Barack Obama has called for this very thing, but congressional action would be needed to guarantee that benefit.  

Paid maternity and paternity leave for congressional staff is entirely at the whim of individual members. The approximately 21,000 aides  on Capitol Hill are covered under the Family and Medical Leave Act through the 1995 Congressional Accountability Act, but the FMLA time is unpaid, and many staffers are reluctant to exhaust the full 12 weeks.  

Hill Navigator posed the question to the seven members of Congress participating in the news conference announcing the paid leave legislation: How much paid maternity or paternity leave do you provide for your own staff? Within a day, each office had responded. Three of the members offer 12 weeks paid leave, considered generous by most U.S. workplace standards. Three other offices offer between six and eight weeks.  

The big surprise? D.C. Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton’s office said she offers two weeks paid leave, with the option to substitute accrued annual or sick leave for additional time.  

To clarify, I asked Benjamin Fritsch, Norton’s communications director, in our email exchange: “The same two weeks are both maternity and/or paternity?”  

“Yes,” he responded.  

I later found out Fritsch had consulted his staff handbook to find the information. But it turns out the handbook is incorrect: Norton offers 12 weeks paid, both for maternity or paternity leave. (Though Fritsch said there has never been an instance of a father requesting family leave.)  

Norton dictated to Fritsch a lengthy statement detailing the discrepancy, and she stressed her work championing this policy. She also admitted she had never seen this section of the handbook, which she said “was apparently copied from something House Administration had passed out to offices sometime in the past.” She apologized for the “confusion,” and said, “It is my fault.” She added, “Wherever it came from, this has never been my policy.”  

“I have a new Chief of Staff and a new Communications Director. They naturally looked at the attached handbook and took it at face value, but did not speak directly with me concerning the Family and Medical leave policy I have used in practice,” Norton said in the statement Fritsch emailed to CQ Roll Call.  

Norton said she has previously directed her chief of staff “to simply use the Family Medical Leave Act with pay.”  

“As you know, parental leave is at the discretion of the member. Staff has been told to conform the handbook to practice,” she said.  

Duly noted. Though if searching through an office handbook produces mistaken information, how else would a staffer — many of whom could be reluctant to take leave due to perceived repercussions in doing so — find out what benefits are provided?  

Such uncertainty is being addressed by Hill Navigator’s reporting, by Jennifer Senior at The New York Times and now Dave Jamieson at the The Huffington Post , whose team has started a running list of members of Congress and their leave policies.  

It bodes well for future Norton staffers that their boss offers such a generous policy. It also is a strong sign that more offices are coming forward with their policies, so staffers can understand what the norms may be.  

But since many offices lack a formal handbook — or in the case of Norton’s office, an updated, accurate handbook — and congressional staff lack a unified policy, the paid leave conversation will likely be dominated by only a handful of voices. And while Hill Navigator is glad to set the record straight on Norton’s paid leave, perhaps more offices can take the time to examine where they stand and how staffers would go about figuring that out.  


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