The White House Summit on Working Families was held June 23.

The White House Summit on Working Families was held June 23. Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP

White House Summit Reignites Talk Of Paid Parental Leave for Feds

President Obama wants the government to be a model for the American workforce, but paid parental leave for civilian employees is no closer to reality.

President Obama wants the federal government to serve as a model for the American workforce when it comes to promoting family-friendly policies. But when he talked about paid parental leave in June at the White House summit on working families, it wasn’t government policy he touted.

“In 2007, Google realized that women were leaving the company at twice the rate that men left -- and one of the reasons was that the maternity leave policy wasn’t competitive enough,” Obama said during his June 23 speech. “So they increased paid leave for new parents -- moms and dads -- to five months. And that helped to cut the rate of women leaving the company in half. Good business sense.”

The same day as Obama’s speech, the White House issued a memorandum to agencies directing them to educate their employees about workplace flexibilities, including telework and the 1993 Family Medical and Leave Act, and enhance those opportunities for workers. Of course, paid parental leave was not mentioned in the memo because the government does not offer it to its civilian employees. The idea has supporters, including the president, but Congress has resisted it for almost 15 years – despite the House passing a bill in 2009 that would provide some paid time off to new parents.

“There are only three countries in the world whose civil service employees don't get a single week of paid parental leave after the birth or adoption of a child, and, embarrassingly, America is one of them,” said Joseph A. Beaudoin, president of the National Active and Retired Federal Employees Association, in response to the White House summit.

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.

The Family and Medical Leave Act, which marked its 20th anniversary last year, 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. While the House passed the legislation in 2009, it has languished in the Senate. The latest bill, which would give feds four weeks of paid parental leave for the birth or adoption of a child, was introduced in February 2013 and is still in committee.

Maloney and other supporters of paid parental leave for federal employees point out that providing the benefit would not increase the budget deficit. The Congressional Budget Office in 2008 did a cost analysis of the legislation and said enacting it “would not affect direct spending or receipts.” That doesn’t mean it’s cost-free however; CBO estimated that providing paid parental leave could cost a total of $850 million between 2009 and 2013, “subject to the appropriation of the necessary funds.” Presumably that cost would be higher today, accounting for inflation. H.R. 517, similar to its predecessors, also would allow the Office of Personnel Management to increase the amount of paid leave to eight weeks, based on several factors including cost to the government and recruiting and retaining employees.  Opponents of providing such leave to federal workers cite the cost, and the fact that the federal government would be setting the tone for paid parental leave in this country, which is not as prevalent in the private sector as it might seem, especially in lower-paying jobs.

But clearly, Obama is interested in having the federal government set an example. 

“For many hourly workers, taking just a few days off can mean losing their job,” Obama said at the summit. “And even though unpaid family leave is available, if you can’t pay the bills already the idea of taking a couple days off unpaid may mean you can’t make the mortgage payment or the rent payment at the end of the month.”

The president also doesn’t view such flexibilities as perks, stating that the obstacles all workers face with respect to holding down a job while caring for a new baby, or an aging parent, are not the result of individual shortcomings but rather the shortsightedness of the private sector and government. 

“These problems are not typically the result of poor planning or too little diligence on the parts of moms or dads, and they cannot just be fixed by working harder or being an even better parent,” Obama said to applause. “All too often, they are the results of outdated policies and old ways of thinking.  Family leave, childcare, workplace flexibility, a decent wage -- these are not frills, they are basic needs.  They shouldn’t be bonuses. They should be part of our bottom line as a society. That’s what we’re striving for.”

For now, and the foreseeable future however, paid parental leave for federal employees remains an elusive goal for supporters.

“More and more private employers around the world are offering new parents paid time off so they can take care of their newborns,” Beaudoin said. “As a result, federal agencies can't compete with the private sector for talented young workers who, if electing federal employment, would instead need to use up earned vacation or forego pay in order to take time off after the birth of a child.”