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Congress poised to pass paid parental leave for federal workers

Could the measure spur wider action in the private sector?

A provision in the defense authorization bill expected to be passed by Congress would give all federal employees 12 weeks of paid parental leave. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
A provision in the defense authorization bill expected to be passed by Congress would give all federal employees 12 weeks of paid parental leave. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

About 2 million federal employees are about to be guaranteed 12 weeks of paid parental leave under a bill soon to be signed into law by President Donald Trump, but several experts say the cost of such a benefit may discourage Democrats’ hopes of it spurring broader adoption in private industry.

The provision, folded into a defense bill months in the working, would give all federal civilian employees three months of paid leave for the birth, adoption or fostering of a child. Democrats originally pushed for a broader set of benefits to cover family relations and illnesses but praised the measure’s inclusion. Rep. Carolyn B. Maloney, who chairs the Oversight and Reform Committee, touted the provision as “long overdue.”  

“Everyone talks about families and family values, but when you look at the policies that we have, they’re not supportive to families,” the New York Democrat said at a news conference Tuesday.

In a report released late Wednesday, the Congressional Budget Office estimated the benefit would cost about $3.3 billion through fiscal 2024. The report did not include information about how many employees would be eligible or estimates of how many would use the benefit.

Congressional leaders have put the measure on track for quick approval, and the legislation, officially the National Defense Authorization Act, could be on Trump’s desk as early as this week.

“Wow! All of our priorities have made it into the final NDAA: Pay Raise for our Troops, Rebuilding our Military, Paid Parental Leave, Border Security, and Space Force! Congress — don’t delay this anymore! I will sign this historic defense legislation immediately!” Trump tweeted Wednesday. 

Paid family leave has been a pet issue for the president’s daughter. On Thursday, Ivanka Trump and Secretary of Health and Human Services Alex Azar will host a White House roundtable to discuss paid leave. 

Additionally, Maloney’s committee held a hearing Tuesday on a broader paid family leave mandate to include the private sector. 

Maloney, along with House Armed Services Chairman Adam Smith of Washington and others argue the new benefit could spur broader adoption among private companies. But several experts caution that such an impact might be limited. 

Marc Freedman, vice president for workplace policy at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, said the federal policy does stand out. Most jurisdictions that currently have such a benefit mandate only a percentage of income replacement. He said requiring full pay during parental leave would be “an extraordinarily expensive benefit” to provide.

“Private sector employers have to worry about things like budget and payrolls that the federal government can always seem to find its way out of,” Freedman said. “The two environments are radically different.”

Adopting the benefit does “in some ways open the door or create some momentum toward the idea of something on a parental leave basis” for private employers, but companies may balk at the cost. Already, they have problems with the patchwork of state rules on family and parental leave, Freedman said.

Eileen Appelbaum, co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research, said the policy change may only encourage an existing inequity between companies that have deep pockets and those that don’t.

“We have employers who have deep pockets and are already providing [the benefit],” she said. “Small employers just cannot do it. Many employers who are dependent on getting contracts from other companies just cannot do it themselves.”  

The agreement in the final bill also covers executive branch employees, as well as those working for the Government Accountability Office, the Library of Congress and congressional offices. According to the language released Monday, it would not cover federal contractors or employees of the U.S. Postal Service.

Family policy in a defense bill

An earlier CBO assessment of a 2009 version of the proposal, which would have provided only four weeks of paid leave, estimated the cost at $940 million over the course of five years.

Smith, the Armed Services chairman, said recent talks had not relied on a specific number when negotiating the new benefit, which was a smaller version of the original, broader family and medical leave provision in the defense bill the House passed earlier this year. 

A number of Republicans have said they felt the parental leave provision did not belong in a defense bill. But that wouldn’t keep them from supporting the full measure. 

“When you have a large bill like this, you have to look at everything, and just because of one provision that shouldn’t be there, I’m not going to vote against [the bill,]” Alabama Rep. Bradley Byrne told CQ Roll Call.  

Military members already receive some paid parental leave. Federal employee unions have backed previous measures to include more beneficiaries and support the newest efforts. Ken Thomas, president of the National Active and Retired Federal Employees Association, said in a statement Monday the change would provide employees with “priceless” time with their families.

“With every other industrialized country providing paid parental leave to its citizens, and America’s top 20 companies offering some amount of it to their employees, this policy is long overdue, but no less important,” he said.

The National Treasury Employees Union also backs the measure.

“This is a monumental step forward in allowing federal employees to bond with their new children, whether a new birth, adoption or foster,” union president Tony Reardon said in a statement. 

House Democrats have pushed for similar changes to federal law and passed the measure as part of their own version of the NDAA earlier this year. Maloney sponsored a version of the bill included in the previous NDAA package. 

Currently, laws in about a dozen states mandate some form of parental or family leave that covers some employers, according to a 2017 report from the Urban Institute.  

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