On eve of summit, federal government lags on paid parental leave

McClatchy Washington BureauJune 20, 2014 

— The Obama administration criticizes the lack of paid parental leave in the United States, saying that changing family dynamics require modified policies.

Yet most of the federal government offers its employees virtually no paid parental leave. There’s paid sick leave, paid annual leave – and there’s planning ahead. A federal employee on the job for at least four years who has saved up vacation or sick time can use it for up to 12 weeks of paid leave for pregnancy-related health appointments, childbirth and caring for the newborn.

But for other federal employees, pregnancy often means unpaid leave.

President Barack Obama on Monday will host a White House Summit on Working Families to discuss workplace policies, including leave.

The conference comes two decades after Congress last changed federal leave standards in 1993 with the Family and Medical Leave Act. It promised workers a job-protected three months of unpaid leave for childbirth as well as familial and personal illnesses.

While the law does not cover more than 40 percent of workers in the U.S., most federal workers fall within the law’s parameters – as long as they have been in the job for a year.

To expand protections, Obama supports the Federal Employees Paid Parental Leave Act, which would require four weeks of paid parental leave.

The bill, which Rep. Carolyn Maloney, D-N.Y., has introduced eight times since 2000, passed the House of Representatives in 2009. It has never passed the Senate.

Advocates of paid parental leave have called upon the government to lead the way in creating paid leave policies.

“The nation’s largest employer really should be a leader in family-friendly policies, but it has not kept pace with the changing American workforce,” Maloney said.

White House senior adviser Valerie Jarrett said Friday that the president has “taken very deliberate steps to make the White House as family friendly as possible, beginning with the president putting in place a leave policy for White House staff soon after he took office.”

Like all federal workers, White House employees can use accumulated paid leave when they have a child – but unlike others in the federal government, those in the White House are guaranteed six weeks paid time off from the get-go, The Huffington Post first reported.

But “in order to have leave beyond that, it would require an act of Congress,” Jarrett said.

Three months ago, Obama called on Congress to “join every other advanced nation on Earth by offering paid leave to folks who work hard every day.”

As the only Western country without paid maternity leave, the U.S. ranks among just three countries worldwide that lack the policy altogether, according to a recent U.N. study.

The lack of paid leave has consequences. Without paid maternity leave, women at middle- and low-income levels frequently leave the workforce after having a child or lose seniority in their career, according to the National Organization for Women.

“Women actually get forced out of work altogether because they don’t have paid leave,” said NOW president Terry O'Neill. “They can’t stay on the job because they can’t afford newborn daycare.”

Being a mom has a greater bearing on wages than being a woman, according to a University of Massachusetts-Amherst report. Known as the “motherhood penalty” or the “mommy tax,” women who have children will lose an average 19 percent of their wages after returning to work, according to a Southern Methodist University analysis.

Though the federal leave policy has not changed since 1993, certain private-sector workplaces have become increasingly new-parent friendly. Eleven percent of employees in the private sector now have paid parental leave, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Among the 100 most family-friendly offices ranked by Working Women magazine, a rising number of companies have provide up to six weeks paid parental leave.

A handful of states also have created paid family leave programs that are available to most of their employees. California, Rhode Island and New Jersey, for example, have similar policies that allot between four and six weeks paid family leave to most workers.

Financed by a worker payroll tax, these state programs mimic an insurance policy rather than an employee benefit, such as vacation days. The proposed federal law includes a similar system. Programs like these, with paid family leave entrenched in the system, are necessary to yield positive results from the policy, said Ariane Hegewisch of the Institute for Women’s Policy Research.

“The issue with something like paid maternity leave . . . is it’s not something you can force individual employers to provide,” said Hegewisch, who wrote a report on the proposed new law in 2009. “Otherwise what you have, you structure in an incentive for employers to discriminate against someone who might need it.”

States can apply for federal grants between $5,000 and $1.5 million to help fund their paid parental leave programs. But most states remain without a policy.

The National Partnership for Women and Families on Thursday released a state-by-state analysis of the state-level leave policies in place in the U.S. Thirty-one states received below a “C” grade in the laws they have enacted to support working families, according to the report.

“New mothers and fathers should not have to experience financial hardship at what should be one of the happiest times of their lives,” National Partnership president Debra Ness said. “America’s families expect and deserve much better. We need national family-friendly workplace standards now.”

Email: shaven@mcclatchydc.com; Twitter: @stephaniehaven.

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