Baby Steps

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Yahoo 16, Uncle Sam 0.

Those are the weeks of paid maternity leave available to employees at a leading U.S. technology company and the federal government. If 16-0 were the score of a game where having the most points matters, then there would be a clear winner and a clear loser. But reality is rarely that black and white. The decision to offer employees in any sector paid parental leave is complicated by cost and politics. There’s no law mandating paid maternity or paternity leave in the United States, although many organizations increasingly view the benefit as a wise investment in the endless campaign to attract and retain workers.

Unfortunately for Uncle Sam, lots of federal employees are keeping score on maternity and paternity leave, and many of them don’t like the column they’re in. The government’s parental leave policy is a big issue for some employees at the Housing and Urban Development Department, says Michael Lawyer, a program analyst for the Office of Healthy Homes and Lead Hazard Control and co-founder of HUD Under 5, a grass-roots group designed to improve morale and retention among employees who have worked at the department less than five years. 

“When you are only accruing leave at four hours a pay period, it takes you three years of never getting sick to be able to accumulate enough leave to have a baby,” Lawyer said during a discussion in May at Government Executive’s Excellence in Government conference. “We have a lot of people who are coming in, are three years into government, feel like they’ve got a stable job, they have a stable life, they want to start a family—and then discover they’re totally unable financially to do this,” Lawyer said.

The 1993 Family and Medical Leave Act, which marked its 20th anniversary in February, provides up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave to most government and private sector workers for the birth or adoption of a child, or to care for seriously ill family members. Federal employees who give birth or adopt can tap their accrued sick and annual leave to avoid three months without a paycheck, but many bristle at having to use hard-earned leave when paid parental leave is becoming more prevalent in the private sector. 

Democratic Rep. Carolyn Maloney of New York has been introducing legislation since 2000 that would provide some paid time off for new federal parents. The House has passed the legislation twice during the past 13 years, but it has languished in the Senate. The current bill in committee—which would give feds four weeks of paid parental leave for the birth or adoption of a child—has almost no chance of passage in the current political and fiscal climate. Even the Democrats who support the legislation are not optimistic about its odds.

The government, though, has more flexibility than some realize when it comes to granting time off so new parents can care for and bond with their babies. Uncle Sam can’t offer paid maternity or paternity leave without Congress changing the law, but employees and managers can work together to craft unique agreements within the parameters of current policy. Jill Harper, who works at the State Department, adopted her daughter last year and was able to take off six months between March and September 2012 to care for her.

“My boss was uniquely cool about it,” says Harper, who is now an analyst in the Bureau of Consular Affairs. Harper drafted a memorandum of understanding with her boss, and used a combination of annual and sick leave as well as a “ton” of leave without pay to stay home with her daughter. Harper realizes that she was fortunate to have such an understanding boss, and that not all feds are so lucky. But Harper also says she knows other employees at State who have worked out similar arrangements. “I think the perception is that you need an act of Congress to make all management act a certain way,” but there are flexibilities that senior managers can use, says Harper. 

Lawyer, whose HUD Under 5 group met in May with the department’s deputy secretary to discuss parental leave, says that while many agency managers try to work with new parents to accommodate their leave needs, navigating that terrain can be tricky. “It’s a huge issue for managers because we saw a lot of them caught between doing the right thing and doing the correct thing, and there was a lot of bending of the flexibilities people had been given to make it work,” Lawyer said at the EIG conference. “And any time you start getting in and fiddling with changing expectations because somebody is differently situated, you are begging for a number of issues.” 

HUD is encouraging the Office of Personnel Management to revisit the government’s parental leave policy, according to Lawyer. In a 2001 study, OPM argued that agencies don’t need to offer feds paid parental leave. “The federal government’s leave policies and programs compare favorably with benefits offered by most private sector companies,” Doris Hausser, then acting associate director for workforce compensation and performance at OPM, said in a memorandum accompanying that report. OPM’s 2013 response to the parental leave policy sounds about the same. 

“OPM has worked hard to implement and encourage agency workplace flexibilities like telework that promote family- friendly policies in an effort to recruit and retain high-performing employees,” says a spokeswoman. “Under current law, there are many leave and work scheduling options available to federal employees covered by the Title 5 leave authorities who will be adding to their families through birth or adoption.”

Uncle Sam can’t compete with the Yahoos of the world when it comes to paid maternity leave. But it can do a better job advertising what it does have to offer. The government should be more transparent about flexibilities in human resources “so people don’t have to have my position or my personality to pursue what they really want,” Harper says.

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