House revisits paid leave for federal parents

The federal government lags behind the private sector and many industrialized countries by not providing paid parental leave benefits to federal employees, several witnesses told a House subcommittee on Thursday.

At a hearing before the House Oversight and Government Reform Subcommittee on the Federal Workforce, several witnesses pledged support for new legislation (H.R. 3799) that would provide all federal employees with eight weeks of paid leave for the birth or adoption of a child.

"The lack of paid family leave puts federal agencies at a disadvantage when competing for the best and brightest employees," said bill sponsor Rep. Carolyn Maloney, D-N.Y. "Providing parental leave would encourage younger workers who may be considering having a family to stay with the federal government."

Maloney pointed to a recent study by the Joint Economic Committee that found 75 percent of Fortune 100 companies offered new mothers some form of paid leave, typically lasting six to eight weeks. Additionally, more than 163 industrialized nations guaranteed paid maternal leave, with 45 of those countries also providing paid paternal leave.

Under current law, employees can use only a combination of paid annual leave, sick leave and unpaid leave under the 1993 Family and Medical Leave Act for childbirth or adoption. Federal parents can take up to 12 weeks of unpaid maternity or paternity leave and up to 13 days of paid sick leave to care for newborn or adopted children.

Amy Constantino, a federal employee for 16 years, testified that taking 12 weeks of unpaid leave was not an option for her family. She said she was fortunate to have accrued enough sick and annual leave over her federal career to care for her twin sons, who were born three months premature.

"The Paid Parental Leave Act … would far exceed its value in terms of my compensation," she said. "It would have given me the opportunity to be with my children and the peace of mind that I had given them the best possible start in life."

But several witnesses testified that many federal employees, especially those of child-bearing age, have not accrued enough sick and annual leave to recover from the birth or care for a new child. Witnesses noted that many employees are left to care for a child without any income, and many are at risk of losing their jobs.

Nancy Kichak, associate director for strategic human resources policy for the Office of Personnel Management, said the federal government has an array of leave benefits, including generous sick leave, leave-sharing programs and flexible work schedules, to help new parents. But the missing piece, she added, is offering income support to employees who experience short-term disabilities, including childbirth.

Kichak said OPM has proposed establishing a disability insurance program that would offer employees the opportunity to purchase short-term coverage on a voluntary basis. She said premiums for such coverage likely would be $1,000 per year, or $40 per pay period.

"The more comprehensive nature of the [disability insurance program] would make it more attractive to employees than the coverage under H.R. 3799," Kichak said. "In addition … the [program] would not adversely affect agencies' ability to budget for staffing requirements."

But Colleen Kelley, president of the National Treasury Employees Union, criticized OPM's plan, underscoring that it was developed without union input. "The $40 per pay period will not make it a program employees will use," she said, adding that the insurance program would be more effective if it supplemented the eight weeks of paid leave.

Subcommittee Chairman Danny Davis, D-Ill., said that during the markup of the paid parental leave legislation, he would offer an amendment directing the Government Accountability Office to study the feasibility of providing a short-term disability insurance benefit to federal employees. The study would look at disability insurance benefits currently offered by state and local governments as well as the private sector.

Davis also said he would introduce legislation Thursday extending the maximum age, from 22 to 25, for coverage of dependents under the Federal Employee Health Benefits Program.

"Young adults are the fastest-growing age group among the uninsured," Davis said. "While the current law provides health insurance until age 22, studies … have found that, college-educated or not, 22-year-olds face waiting periods, temporary positions and lower-wage jobs as they enter the job market."

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