Paid parental leave touted as a way to improve retention

Giving federal employees paid parental leave could help agencies retain more promising young employees and help federal workers avoid difficult financial trade-offs, family advocacy groups said on Monday.

During a Capitol Hill press conference to bolster support for the 2009 Federal Employees Paid Parental Leave Act, the Institute for Women's Policy Research released a new report highlighting the challenges federal parents confront. Currently, government employees do not receive any paid leave to care for newborns and children they adopt or foster. They can use other types of paid leave, but it is difficult for them to save up enough paid time off to cover the 12-week absence they are allowed under the 1993 Family and Medical Leave Act, the report said.

Even if federal employees take two weeks of vacation and use only three sick days annually, it would take them 4.2 years to accrue 12 weeks of paid leave, the Women's Policy institute calculated.

"This calculation does not, however, account for the use of sick leave for personal or family illness beyond the average use of three days; the use of sick leave to address complications that may occur during pregnancy; or the use of sick leave to address infant health problems that may occur after birth, adoption or foster placement," Kevin Miller, senior research associate at the institute, noted in the report.

The Paid Parental Leave Act is aimed at easing this burden by allowing federal employees who qualify for coverage under the Family and Medical Leave Act four weeks of paid leave and letting them apply accrued paid leave toward the remaining eight weeks. It also would authorize the Office of Personnel Management to increase the benefit to as many as eight weeks of paid parental leave, once the agency studied the efficacy of paid leave. The House version of the bill (H.R. 626) passed in July, but the Senate has yet to take any action.

The Women's Policy report found that in 2008, women of child-bearing age -- defined as 18 to 49 -- voluntarily left the federal government at a rate of 7.6 percent, compared with a rate of 5.8 percent for men in the same age group. If the federal government could bring down the voluntary departure of women in that age group to 6.09 percent annually, then agencies would retain 8,000 more employees per year, the report said.

Insurance company Aetna found its paid parental leave policy reduced turnover by 14 percent, according to the report. Such a reduction could prevent 2,650 women of childbearing age from leaving the federal government, at a savings of $50 million in recruiting and retention costs annually, the policy institute found.

Amy Costantino, an 18-year veteran of the federal government, said when her twins were born three and a half months premature, she faced a difficult choice between using her leave to stay with the boys while they were in a neonatal intensive care unit, or to care for them when they came home from the hospital.

"I was immediately forced to weigh my new personal responsibilities against my existing professional ones," she said, noting that if she had paid parental leave available to her, she could have combined that with her accrued leave to take care of her twins longer. "I feel my agency did everything they could under existing law to make things easier for me and my family."

The lack of paid parental leave for federal employees represents a particular financial challenge, Miller noted, because none of the 27 child care centers the General Services Administration runs in the Washington area offers care for infants younger than six weeks, and one-third of the centers will not accept children younger than three months. Under those circumstances, federal employees must either stay home with their children, or find alternate -- and likely more expensive -- child care options for their children, Miller said.

Vincent DiCaro, senior director of public affairs for the National Fatherhood Initiative, said paid parental leave was important regardless of gender. In a study scheduled for release in December, National Fatherhood found two-thirds of mothers said they would be better able to balance their work and family life if they had more help from their children's fathers. And he said the group has repeatedly found that even though men do not always take full advantage of the family leave offered them, they support policies that help them care for their families.

"This is not a women's issue," he said. "This is a people's issue."

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