Paid Family Leave Deserves a Debate, Not Histrionics
It is possible to ask meaningful questions about the need for the program without attacking the federal workforce.
We may no longer have an administration that openly attacks its own workforce but there remains an alarmingly dishonest narrative in Washington about federal employees that cannot be dismissed as routine political squabbling.
In what should have been a measured, thoughtful policy debate about paid family leave for federal employees, a recent congressional hearing instead devolved into scurrilous attacks on the integrity and value of frontline federal workers around the country.
The Republican members of the House Oversight and Reform Committee were led by Rep. James Comer of Kentucky who disparaged a paid family leave program as “enhanced work perks for federal bureaucrats” who “already enjoy a lavish set of benefits.”
My members and federal employees around the country take issue with this demeaning and inaccurate characterization, and the refusal to give serious consideration to a program that would support workers and their families in a time of crisis. In response, Democratic Rep. Carolyn Maloney of New York, the committee chair and sponsor of the paid family leave bill, led a spirited defense of civil servants.
It is possible to ask meaningful questions about the need for the program—whether it would help recruit and retain skilled employees, how much it would cost, the logistics of its implementation, or how it would guard against fraud—without attacking our country’s workforce.
This hearing should have been a substantive and informative inquiry for the committee that is responsible for government oversight. Instead, it was a contest to see how many ways certain members could offend federal employees, by asserting that federal employees will lie about needing paid family leave; that it’s an extravagant perk that they don’t deserve; that they already have too much time off every year; and that anyone who needs paid family leave lacks personal responsibility.
And for reasons that are unclear, telework came under attack as well. The program that has allowed hundreds of thousands of federal employees to keep delivering on the missions of their agencies throughout a deadly global pandemic was inexplicably couched as federal workers “not on the job.”
Paid family leave is not a perk. It’s an expansion of the unpaid leave provided by the Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993, which we all know has extensive eligibility and documentation requirements, and strict limits.
It is for the federal employee whose spouse spends the week in ICU after a heart attack. Or the one whose elderly mother has only days remaining in hospice. Or the one whose child is recovering from a severe injury and cannot go to school or daycare.
Too often we have federal workers who have exhausted their sick and annual leave taking care of a family member go into debt while on unpaid leave and are stressed about both when they return to work.
It doesn’t have to be that way. In fact, there is strong bipartisan support in this country to lessen the burden for employees when they are in crisis. We are confident that a serious, honest debate at the highest levels of government would compel Congress to implement this humane workplace policy in federal agencies and maybe, one day, in every workplace in America.
Tony Reardon is national president of the National Treasury Employees Union.