GAO: 4% of feds used paid parental leave in the benefit’s first 22 months
In 2022, 81% of federal workers who responded to an annual Office of Personnel Management survey and said they used the then-newly implemented program said they took all 12 weeks of paid parental leave.
The federal government’s fledgling program offering agency employees up to 12 weeks of paid parental leave was used by 4% of the workforce over the first 22 months of its existence, a government watchdog said.
The Government Accountability Office on Thursday published a report analyzing the government’s implementation of the 2019 Federal Employees Paid Leave Act, which was enacted as part of the fiscal 2020 National Defense Authorization Act. It provides up to 12 weeks per year of paid leave in connection with the birth, adoption or foster placement of a child, provided the worker has been employed with a federal agency for at least one year.
GAO found that between October 2020 and July 2022, 4% of federal workers who responded to the 2022 Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey, an annual governmentwide survey of federal employee attitudes, said they used the new benefit. Of those, 81% said they took advantage of the full 12 weeks of paid leave on offer.
For the 19% who did not make full use of their paid leave, OPM told GAO researchers that the reasons varied based on the employee’s gender, place in their agency’s organizational chart, and cultural barriers to taking leave at some agencies. For instance, 60% of men who did not use all of their leave said they felt they could not be away from their work responsibilities for the full 12 weeks, compared to only 43% of women who used only some of their allotted leave.
“Members of the Senior Executive Service who used paid parental leave were less likely to use the full 12 weeks of leave than employees in other pay categories who also used the leave (around 65% for Senior Executive Service members compared to 81% for employees overall),” GAO wrote. “In addition, OPM officials told us they observed considerable agency variability in the 2022 FEVS percentages of employees who used paid parental but did not use the full 12 weeks of leave because (1) they were concerned about the impact on their career advancement, and (2) their coworkers and supervisors did not support their use of all 12 weeks of leave. OPM officials said that the variations may reflect differences in agency culture or the nature of the agency’s mission.”
While the vast majority—96%—of federal workers who took paid parental leave did so in connection with the birth of a child, with 2% each doing so in connection with an adoption or foster placement, some variances exist depending on which pay system the employee is enrolled. Senior leaders saw higher rates of leave usage connected with an adoption or foster placement—in both instances, representing 9% of senior leaders who took leave, compared to the overall average of about 2%. And 6% of Federal Wage System employees who used parental leave did so in connection with the placement of a foster child.
GAO said that while agencies largely have done a good job of communicating the new benefit’s availability to employees, they could do a better job. First, some federal agencies were slow in advertising paid parental leave to potential job candidates on their website, though those agencies all updated their websites when researchers brought the issue up.
But OPM still has not updated its handbooks or fact sheets on leave issues to include information on paid parental leave.
“In September 2023, OPM officials told us that they had not yet completed updating the handbook and fact sheets on OPM’s webpage because it has competing priorities and limited staff available to updated paid parental leave guidance,” GAO wrote. “OPM officials said that they intended to do so as staff resources and workload permitted. In addition, OPM officials told us they initially waited to issue updated guidance until the FEPLA regulations were finalized, to give agencies time to administer the new benefit and identify any issues, and address any potential legislative changes to FEPLA.”
OPM agreed with GAO’s recommendation to update its leave informational materials, and said it hopes to update its handbooks and website to include information on paid parental leave sometime this year. And its own report analyzing the impact of parental leave on federal government operations, recruitment and retention is due imminently.