Md. Dems Hail Deal on Paid Family Leave for Federal Workers

U.S. Sen. Chris Van Hollen. Photo by Bruce DePuyt

Lawmakers have reached a landmark agreement on paid parental leave for federal workers that could institute paid time off for civilian employees for the first time.

The measure would give federal workers 12 weeks of paid leave to care for a newborn or adopted child — extending the same benefits currently given to the military to the 2.1 million civilian members of the federal workforce.

“We have been fighting for years to provide paid family leave to workers throughout the country. With this agreement, the federal government will finally start to lead by example — providing paid parental leave to its workforce,” Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) said in a statement. “We will continue fighting until all working families around the nation receive paid family and medical leave benefits.”

The United States is one of only two countries in the United Nations with no statutory national policy of paid maternity leave. The other is Papua New Guinea. 

Lawmakers negotiated the agreement over months as part of the National Defense Authorization Act, an annual defense spending bill. The “must-pass” defense bill has become a vehicle in recent years for a number of other policies, given the congressional gridlock on other legislation.

The House is expected to vote on the massive defense bill Wednesday. It will likely then head to the Senate, and to Trump’s desk for his signature.

If approved, the parental benefits for federal employees would start in October 2020. 

The contentious paid parental leave measure was one of the last items to be finalized in the conference report. Democrats secured the massive expansion of benefits in exchange for including President Trump’s coveted plans to create a new space force, a deal first reported by the Wall Street Journal. 

The defense bill would authorize the U.S. Space Force as an independent military branch under the Air Force, the sixth Armed Service of the United States, according to the committee’s summary of the bill.

‘Significant first step’

Democrats hailed the paid leave provisions as a victory. But what they wound up with is more narrow than what many progressives hoped for: paid leave not just for parents of new children but to support those caring for other family members that may be sick or in-need. 

Democrats vowed to push for broader benefits in the future.

“While I believe federal employees should be extended full paid family and medical leave benefits, paid parental leave represents a significant first step toward that goal,” House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.) said in a statement. “I will continue to fight for paid family and medical leave for both federal employees and all private sector employees in our country.”

Rep. Carolyn B. Maloney (D-N.Y.), who introduced legislation to provide paid family leave for federal workers, called the agreement a “tremendous victory.” But she said it is “not perfect,” and stressed that she and other Democrats would push for broader support. She chaired a hearing on the issue Tuesday in the House Oversight and Reform Committee. 

“We will be pushing very hard to expand that to the private sector and others,” Maloney said in closing remarks at the hearing. “I can’t tell you how thrilled I am that we passed that. Hopefully this will be a new day in America, and we can continue providing more support for families.” 

Paid leave for all workers?

Eight states and the District of Columbia currently provide paid family leave, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. 

Some Democratic delegates in Maryland’s state legislature have been working for years to secure paid family leave in the state of Maryland. Under former Gov. Martin J. O’Malley (D), the state approved an expansion of the unpaid leave offered in the Family and Medical Leave Act. A coalition introduced a paid family leave law earlier this year, but it did not make progress in the legislature. They will make a renewed push in the upcoming General Assembly session.

The proposal gaining traction in Congress is the FAMILY Act from Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.). It would give family and medical leave insurance for all workers. First introduced in 2013, the bill has been gaining support over the years as more Democrats push for federal support when employees have to take time off to care for a new baby or sick family member.

DeLauro’s bill has 201 cosponsors, including Maryland Democratic Reps. Jamie Raskin, John P. Sarbanes, Anthony G. Brown, and David J. Trone. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) has a companion bill in the Senate with 34 cosponsors, including both senators from Maryland.

It creates a payroll tax of 2 cents for every $10 of wages. Workers would be eligible for 60 days or 12 weeks of partial income for the birth or adoption of a child, or the injury or illness of a family member.

Currently the Family Medical Leave Act requires employers to give employees job-protected unpaid leave for such circumstances. The FAMILY Act would give them an income while they take that time off.

“Income support for new parents is not enough,” DeLauro told the House Oversight and Reform Committee. “Seventy-five percent of workers who take FMLA do so to address health — their own or that of a loved one.”

Republicans at the hearing said businesses should be able to make their own choices about how to provide support for their employees, and touted policies like the Trump tax cuts for corporations.

“Now that the ‘Tax Cut and Job Act’  is the law of the land employers are providing increased wages, more benefits and more flexible schedules for their employees,” said Rep. Frederick Keller (R-Pa.). 

Tuesday’s hearing before the Oversight and Reform Committee was the first with Maloney as chair after the death of Rep. Elijah E. Cummings (D-Md.). 

“As I sit in this chair, I am mindful of his lifelong mission to see not only common ground but higher ground,” she said.

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