Senate COVID Relief Bill Retains 15 Weeks of Paid Leave for Feds Despite GOP Opposition
Republican lawmakers have made the provision a target of attacks, claiming it is too generous and lacks oversight.
Senate Democrats on Thursday unveiled their amendments to the $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief bill, which still contains a provision that would provide federal employees with up to 15 weeks of additional paid leave for COVID-related matters.
The provision would grant up to 600 hours of paid leave—capped at $1,400 per week—to all federal workers, including U.S. Postal Service employees, if they are suffering from symptoms of the coronavirus, if they are caring for a family member who has COVID-19, if they are getting vaccinated or experiencing symptoms related to the vaccine, or if they are caring for a child whose school or child care center is closed or engaging in virtual learning due to the pandemic.
The additional leave would be available from between when the bill is signed into law and Sept. 30. Gone is a provision in the original House version of the bill but stripped during the House Oversight and Reform Committee’s markup process requiring feds to exhaust all other forms of sick leave before they can tap into the new leave fund. The bill sets aside $570 million to pay for the new benefit.
The leave cannot be used concurrently with any other form of paid leave, and any paid leave provided under this provision would reduce the “total service” used by the federal government to calculate federal retirement benefits.
Republicans largely have expressed opposition to the bill, and some have begun citing the paid sick leave provision as wasteful and a “bailout” to federal employees.
“COVID relief should be about getting shots into arms, not creating a taxpayer-funded paid leave program for federal employees,” tweeted Senate Minority Whip John Cornyn, R-Texas. “Apparently Democrats think the solution is providing up to $1,400 per week for bureaucrats with children learning remotely. This is shameful.”
Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, said on the Senate floor Thursday that the leave provision is too generous, noting that 15 weeks is roughly half of the time remaining between now and Sept. 30. He also said there would not be enough oversight.
“A federal employee with children in school will be eligible for this leave program, as long as the school is offering a remote learning option, even if the kids are going to the classroom every day for in-person learning,” Portman said. “Federal employees would also be eligible for this leave if they are feeling unwell, even if they don’t have COVID-19, and with no oversight, no doctor’s note, no supervisory approval.”
The bill actually states that if a federal employee is ill and seeks to use the new leave fund, he or she must be actively seeking a medical diagnosis for COVID-19. And typically, the Office of Personnel Management’s guidance for implementation of similar provisions has provided enforcement measures regarding the need for doctor’s notes and supervisory approval of leave requests.
The Senate is expected to work through the weekend debating the measure. Democrats in both chambers of Congress have targeted March 14 as the deadline for sending the bill to President Biden’s desk, which coincides when the current round of expanded unemployment benefits is set to expire.
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