Pay & Benefits

Debate over paid family leave falls along stark party lines

A June 24 House hearing on legislation to expand paid family leave for federal employees revealed stark opinion differences among members of Congress over whether federal employees are over- or under-compensated.

The proposed legislation would grant federal employees 12 weeks of family and medical leave when they need to care for themselves or a loved one or manage military deployments, expanding upon the 12 weeks of paid parental leave granted to such employees beginning in October last year.

“We need to build on this historic achievement by bringing the federal government’s employment policies in line with leading companies in the private sector — and, indeed, with the rest of the world,” Rep. Carolyn Maloney, D-N.Y., said at the Oversight and Reform Committee hearing. She introduced the bill.

“This bill would finally provide federal employees with comprehensive paid family and medical leave. That means employees would have access to paid leave if they get sick, need to care for an ill family member, or need to miss work due to a family member’s military deployment. The Family and Medical Leave Act guarantees unpaid leave for these reasons, but unpaid leave is untenable for too many federal workers.”

But Republicans on the committee pushed back on the notion that feds should be granted paid leave in such circumstances, citing the fact that the employees could end up with nearly four months off work with pay with their existing leave options.

It’s worth noting that such a circumstance would require an employee to take the entirety of their sick and vacation leave and experience one of the qualifying conditions under the Family and Medical Leave Act every year to receive that degree of time off.

“We’ve already dramatically expanded paid leave for the federal workforce,” said Rep. James Comer, D-Ky. “Taxpayers are sick and tired of giving more benefits and more perks to federal employees because they have to pay for those benefits and perks.”

“It’s not a perk; it’s a crisis in most families,” Maloney responded.

The debate over paid family and medical leave rests largely on the ongoing disagreement over whether federal employees are compensated appropriately or not.

Conflicting government studies have found that the federal workforce is both better compensated and more poorly compensated than private sector counterparts. That discrepancy comes in large part from differing study methodologies that focused either on comparing educational attainment or employees with similar job requirements.

On top of that, federal employees generally receive more expansive retirement benefits and greater choice for their health insurance than most private sector workers.

But the federal government also employs a much more skilled and educated workforce than the average private sector workforce, and therefore needs to draw talent from a much more competitive pool.

Vicki Shabo, senior fellow of Paid Leave Policy and Strategy at the Better Life Lab on behalf of New America, noted at the hearing that around one in five private sector workers have access to paid family leave, though the private sector workers on par with federal skill and education levels are generally doing better on that front.

She also said that providing just paid parental leave only covers about a quarter of leave taken under FMLA, as the remainder is used to care for oneself in a serious medical situation or for a loved one.

“Care for yourself and care for a loved one [is] very, very critical and will become more so over time,” said Shabo.

Bill proponents said that the COVID-19 pandemic highlighted the importance of having a paid leave option that keeps sick employees home and prevents employees from leaving the workforce due to the emergency need to care for family.

“Providing paid family leave to federal employees is a win for both the employees and the government,” National Treasury Employees Union National President Tony Reardon wrote in a statement.

“Employees would be allowed time to take care of themselves or a family member with a serious health condition, and agencies would not have to cover the costs of recruiting and training new employees and would be better able to compete with the private sector and those forward-looking states for talented individuals.”

The Congressional Budget Office has not issued a cost estimate for the bill, though such potential costs were a central concern around adopting it.

“This is a small cost compared to the high cost of hiring new employees due to high turnover in the federal government due to lack of comprehensive benefits,” American Federation of Government Employees National President Everett Kelley said.

“Paid family leave will undoubtedly improve recruitment and retention of talented workers who would choose to work for other employers who provide such leave. The federal government currently reimburses federal contractors and grantees for the cost of providing paid family leave to their workers. Surely if such practice is affordable and reasonable for contractors and grantees, federal employees should be eligible for similar treatment.”

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