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Lawmakers explore House-wide paid family leave policy

Appropriators request study of cost and feasibility

House lawmakers are exploring a paid family leave program for House employees. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
House lawmakers are exploring a paid family leave program for House employees. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

House lawmakers are interested in what a chamber-wide paid family leave policy would look like and how much it would cost. And staffers are likely  curious, too. Currently, paid maternity and paternity leave for congressional staff remains entirely at the whim of individual members.

“There is interest among Members of Congress to investigate the feasibility of implementing a standard House-wide paid family leave policy,” reads the committee report to accompany the fiscal 2020 House Legislative Branch Appropriations bill.

Thousands of staffers on Capitol Hill are covered under the Family and Medical Leave Act, but FMLA time is unpaid and many staffers are reluctant to exhaust the full 12 weeks provided. Paid leave varies 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.

The committee report, released Wednesday, directs the Office of the Chief Administrative Officer to report on establishing and maintaining a House-wide paid family and medical leave policy and program. Lawmakers want the CAO to study options for providing staffers 12 weeks of paid leave for the birth and care of a newborn child, adoption or fostering a child or caring for an immediate family member with a serious health condition.

Paid leave is a hot topic on Capitol Hill and at the White House, where presidential adviser and daughter Ivanka Trump has made it one of her signature policy issues.

The United States is the only industrialized nation in the world without any type of federal paid family leave program. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, just 13 percent of private-industry employees had access to paid family leave in March 2017.

Republicans, Democrats and the White House are all in agreement that parents should be able to take paid leave to care for a new baby, but they diverge on what a federal policy should look like and who should pay for it. The House Ways and Means Committee held its first hearing on family and medical leave Wednesday morning and multiple proposals have been introduced in the Senate.

But those policies might not have much of an impact on Capitol Hill staffers. Congress routinely exempts itself from federal labor laws and others governing federal employees.

Earlier this year, the House debuted a brand-new, 26,000 square foot, state-of-the-art child care facility. The first phase, opened in January, provides spots for 120 infants and toddlers whose parents work in the House. A second phase is on track to open in 2020 to accommodate 122 preschoolers. 

In recent years, waitlists have reached over 200 children. Some staffers would sign up for the waitlist as soon as they were engaged to be married, long before they were actually expecting. The child care expansion was aimed at reducing these wait times for staffers. 

The House day care costs between $1,100 and $1,700 a month — a fraction of the cost of private day care in the Washington area. But employees of the House Child Care Center would get a helping hand under the fiscal 2020 Legislative Branch bill: The measure instructs the CAO to reduce tuition for center employees to ensure that the total amount they pay does not exceed $1,000 per month. 

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