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2 million federal workers are poised to get paid parental leave for the first time ever

This new policy is far from comprehensive, but it does mark a major milestone in expanding access to paid leave.

House Democratic Caucus
Rep. Carolyn Maloney, D-N.Y., leaves a meeting of the House Democratic Caucus in the Capitol on Wednesday, December 4, 2019.
Tom Williams/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images
Li Zhou is a politics reporter at Vox, where she covers Congress and elections. Previously, she was a tech policy reporter at Politico and an editorial fellow at the Atlantic.

The federal government’s 2.1 million workers are poised to get paid parental leave for the first time, in a groundbreaking policy delivered in an unusual vehicle: the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA).

Congress has officially passed the annual bill, which establishes budgets for the military and is seen as a “must-pass” — making it an appealing measure for addressing other legislative priorities, like the paid leave provision. Starting October 1, 2020, any federal worker who has held their job for at least a year will be guaranteed 12 weeks of paid parental leave. The legislation now heads to President Donald Trump’s desk, where he’s expected to sign it.

Although this expansion of parental leave is a major milestone, many progressives weren’t pleased with other omissions in the NDAA, which cut several provisions including one requiring Congressional approval if the US were to go to war with Iran.

As the Washington Post reports, paid parental leave for federal workers was preserved in the NDAA in exchange for one of President Donald Trump’s top priorities: establishing the Space Force.

This paid leave offering marks a significant change, though it is limited in scope: it only covers parental leave for individuals who have a new baby or adopt a child, and and does not include leave for those who need to care for a sick family member. Additionally, it won’t apply to the millions of workers who are not employed by the government.

For the federal workers it applies to, however, it is a notable update. Currently, non-military federal workers only have access to 12 weeks of unpaid leave, laid out by the Family and Medical Leave Act, which Congress passed in 1993.

Despite its shortcomings, this policy helps establish a new national standard on paid leave and brings the country one step closer to expanding the reach of such benefits to cover more workers. Presently, the United States is the only industrialized country in the world that doesn’t have a federal paid parental leave program.

The United States is the only industrialized country that does not have a federal paid parental leave program.
World Policy Analysis Center

What’s still missing

Congressional Democrats have heralded this parental leave deal, though it falls short of their original demands, which included paid leave for caregivers looking after sick family members.

“While paid leave for new parents is a critical benefit, more than three quarters of people taking unpaid leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) do so to care for their own serious medical issue or a loved one who is not a new child,” Debra Ness, president of the National Partnership for Women and Families, said in a statement.

The current deal is expected to cost roughly $3.3 billion over the course of five years, according to an estimate from the Congressional Budget Office. As the Post notes, some members of the Trump administration balked at this price tag. For context, the fiscal year 2020 NDAA authorizes $738 billion in total for an array of military programs. As indicated in an older House version of the legislation, the costs of the parental leave offering appear to be covered by appropriations that are allocated to different federal agencies.

This particular deal pales in comparison to other proposals Democrats have put forth on the subject in the past.

The FAMILY Act, a Democratic bill sponsored by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand and Rep. Rosa DeLauro, for example, would guarantee 12 weeks of paid leave to all workers — not just those employed by the government — who could use it to care for a child or a sick family member. They could also take the time off themselves if they became ill. The program would be paid for via a 0.2 percent payroll tax on each worker’s wages, which would be split between employers and employees.

Gillibrand, however, emphasized that the NDAA deal was a major development.

“This means that the largest employer in the country now provides basic parental leave, a huge step, and we must work to ensure that paid leave for other family emergencies will be added in the future,” she said in a statement.

While limited, this new policy is significant

The effects of this new policy — despite its limitations — are significant: paid leave has been found to improve women’s workforce retention, children’s health outcomes, and parents’ ability to bond with their children. Growing access to paid leave for federal workers is a massive adjustment in benefits — and it’s one that could also put pressure on the private sector to offer the same if companies aren’t already doing so.

“Not only does it mean that federal employees will get what they’re entitled to, the federal government is a pacesetter,” Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer told the Associated Press. “If you work for a private company, this means the pressure on your employer will be much greater to give you parental leave as well when the blessed event of a child comes around, or god forbid your child is really sick and needs serious care.”

Presently, eight states and the District of Columbia have set up their own paid leave programs, all of which vary as there is no central federal policy that governs all workers. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, just 16 percent of workers in the private industry had access to paid family leave in 2018.

Beyond the benefits that workers themselves experience from such programs, there’s also a major motivation for employers to get on board: they’ve been found to improve company worker retention and help with recruitment. Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-MD) pointed out as much in a statement, noting that this new policy could save the federal government at least $50 million annually in turnover costs.

Although this recent policy change doesn’t go as far as it could, and the United States is still lagging behind pretty much every other developed country in what it offers working parents, it is still a momentous shift in the types of benefits that federal workers can access.

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