House passes paid parental leave bill

Feds would get four weeks of paid time off for birth or adoption of a child; veto threat looms.

The House on Thursday passed legislation that would institute a paid parental leave policy for all federal employees.

The House voted 278-146 to pass H.R. 5781, which would provide four weeks of paid maternal or paternal leave for the birth or adoption of a child. It would, for the first time, let new parents use their accrued sick leave for an additional eight weeks of paid 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. Parents can take up to 12 weeks of unpaid maternity or paternity leave and are limited to 13 days of paid sick leave to care for newborn or adopted children.

"If we're ever going to have the kind of federal workforce that we can all be proud of … then we have to be able to keep pace with the private sector," Rep. Danny K. Davis, D-Ill., said at a Thursday news briefing. "I am not one of those individuals who believe that if you want something done well, you get the private sector do it."

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.

A statement issued by the White House on Monday indicated that President Bush's advisers would recommend he veto the bill, arguing that the measure "would provide a costly, unnecessary new paid leave entitlement."

The White House noted that "federal employees ages 20 to 45 already have a combined paid leave balance of over seven weeks." The statement cited a 2006 federal human capital survey that stated 86 percent of employees said they were satisfied with paid leave offered by the government.

The administration proposed offering a short-term disability insurance benefit to help some employees, particularly those who need large amounts of leave early in their careers. It would provide annual leave during pregnancy or recovery from childbirth, an accident or illness. The option would enable employees to purchase affordable short-term disability coverage on a voluntary basis, according to the White House.

But bill sponsor Carolyn Maloney, D-N.Y., said pregnancy was neither a disability nor a sickness, noting that a short-term disability insurance option did not stack up to the benefit of paid leave for new parents.

"As the nation's largest employer, the federal government should be setting a national standard with workplace policies that are truly family-friendly," Maloney said. "If President Bush supports family values, he will reevaluate his misguided veto threat of this important legislation."

Companion legislation was introduced in the Senate on Monday by Sen. Jim Webb, D-Va. The bill seeks to align federal parental leave policies with a provision in the Senate version of the fiscal 2009 defense authorization bill, which allows up to 21 days of paid paternity leave for members of the military.

Rep. Tom Davis, R-Va., a co-sponsor of the bill, said at the briefing that he did not believe stand-alone parental leave legislation would pass the Senate this late in the congressional session. But with the large bipartisan support in the House, he said, it might be possible to include the provisions in the fiscal 2009 appropriations process.

Davis said many Republicans have expressed concern about the cost of the proposal, which the Congressional Budget Office has estimated to be $850 million over five years. But, he noted, the cost pales in comparison to recent legislation to pass through Congress, including Iraq war supplementals and an economic stimulus package.

"They talk about the money," he said. "This is peanuts in terms of giving our workforce the managerial tools it needs to hire and retain good people."