Federal Employees News Digest

Paid family leave: Bill fuels fed employee hopes—and experts see wide-ranging benefits

To date, the federal government does not offer its employees paid family leave—but a bill to do just that is garnering support in Congress, and in some quarters of the White House. For now, federal employees—like other U.S. workers covered under the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) passed back in the 1990s—are entitled only to unpaid family leave. This is out of step, as many private sector companies—including federal government contractors—already offer paid family leave, as do some public employers (for instance, the local government of the District of Columbia.) Could it happen for feds? Any addition to benefits, even one backed with compelling facts and bipartisan backing, faces uncertainty in today’s combative political climate. The new bill, the Paid Family Leave Act of 2019, would provide up to 12 weeks of paid family leave. It is essentially a reprise of last year’s bill, pressed by Reps. Carolyn Maloney (D-N.Y.) and now-former Rep. Barbara Comstock (R-Va.) Political backers—and a range of experts—offer evidence to recommend paid family leave. Why is paid family leave so important to have? And why are some employers– like the fed government—so slow to provide it? Especially if it offers many cost/benefit advantages in recruiting and maintaining good workers and productivity?  This week, Nathan Abse interviews Jeffrey Wenger, a labor economist and senior policy researcher with RAND—and an expert on non-wage benefits—on this important potential perk for feds.  

Q&A with Jeffrey Wenger

Feds already can—and do—take other forms of leave and absences in family situations, but hope over this bill is rising; so, why is specifically paid family leave important to have?

Wenger: There are many reasons why unpaid family leave isn’t enough, and paid family leave is important to have. First of all, if you want people to actually take leave for family issues—to help them and ultimately the workplace—you have to make it affordable for them to take it. Unpaid family leave, which came on in the 1990s in the U.S., under the Family and Medical Leave Act, or FMLA, was a welcome development, but it came with big limitations. It helped, but, well, it was not paid. It needs to be paid to work well, of course.

What were the arguments against the FMLA—and aren’t we seeing some of the same arguments again?

Wenger: Yes, we are. And, now, it’s always interesting to remind ourselves of how even incremental steps like this one were regarded at the time. And, at that time, in the 1990s, many naysayers said this was going to be the end of the world for the American economy. For 12 weeks of unpaid leave! And all the law did—the FMLA did—really was to guarantee your job was still going to be there, when you get back, in firms that had 50 or more employees. Of course, the reality is that just as we got an unpaid leave law, and then instead of collapse we had the then-biggest post-war expansion since World War II in the years that followed. So much for the new law causing calamity. The doomsayers were all very wrong about the FMLA.

Right, and your bottom line is that the FMLA was useful, but inadequate—why?  

Wenger: Unpaid family leave, while it is great and useful, it is mostly for upper middle class folks who have accrued or amassed enough savings that they can afford to take significant unpaid leave. And the on-the-ground use of this law, as you might expect—it just is not being used that much by many regular middle class folks. And as for federal employees, let’s be clear about this, they’re in that category. Our federal employees are not getting fabulously wealthy in their jobs, not making a ton of money, despite all the job security they might have. Despite the heated hype in recent years, there are just are very few gold-plated Cadillacs parked at the Department of Labor and other agencies, you know?

What are some of the proven practical reasons feds and others in the workforce benefit from paid family leave?

Wenger: First of all, to be practical, you have to have some way of paying for family leave, to actually help regular people with their needs, right now in real time. Not from their savings. Number two, it’s good for parents. It helps people adjust to having a new child or children. A new child is a major life event—and it can often cause major stress. Taking some paid leave helps everyone to figure out how to adjust, how to take care of the child, how to cope. Parents need to reassemble their lives, in a new way, and they need to figure a lot out. Time helps parents to do that, and to get their sea-legs for a new way of living with a baby in the household. Number three, having real leave time is very helpful for the kids themselves. It helps them with bonding with parents—with breast-feeding, for example, we know that health outcomes for kids are significantly improved. All of these points are backed by solid research. For breast-feeding, for example, there is very good research that shows doing so up to a year is very helpful for the child. There are all kinds of recommendations on this from the American Academy of Pediatrics and other medical authorities, and yet it is extraordinarily hard to do if you are not able to be with your child. Now, you can express milk, but over time for many that can become problematic. Those first 12 weeks—getting the kid nursed, getting everyone into a routine—it’s all very important for both parent and child health.

What about the benefits to the workplace—that is, to the federal government as an employer?          

Wenger: There are many. An employer wants—and needs—to have workers who can be focused at work, focused on their jobs. They want employees who can provide the attention and detail that they need to do their jobs effectively. If employees are distracted by children who have been brought into the family without a good transition, and they are struggling to cobble together some kind of child care, and all the other distractions of having children, all of this while working—those are workers who are going to be badly distracted and potentially less productive. These are all important reasons to improve the situation, with paid family leave. From an employer’s standpoint, it’s let’s get people to where they can get situated, comfortable with having a family, productive and ready to go.

Those are the ongoing advantages to a workplace—what about paid leave’s effects on recruiting and retaining the best employees?

Wenger: Definitely. That is the other side of this coin—the recruiting and retention advantages to the employer. Employers that offer these kinds of opportunities, especially on improving family and medical leave, they are going to be the most attractive. They are going to be able to recruit or retain people that those that don’t will have a hard time getting and keeping.

What about the value of paid leave not just for people with young families, but for older employees, whose children are well along their way?  

Wenger: Well, everything I’ve said just now is about the family leave part. But now you’re talking about the family and the medical leave part. We’re talking here about people on the other side of the age distribution—older adults, people in the “sandwich generation.” People often still looking after their own older children, but who now need some leave because they also have care issues for an elderly parent, someone in the family who is having mental health issues or is perhaps suffering dementia and needs care—this sort of issue or medical problem. So, that can happen to employees later in their careers. Again, offering this is important to recruiting, retention—because these are all transitions we all have to deal with, the health of your children, the health of your older family—of your parents— and death in the family. These are three of the biggest transitions, issues, ones we all have to cope with, and they all have profound effects on people, on employees. And if you can address these problems better through paid family leave in ways that don’t cause as much disruption to work.

Federal employees have good benefits—opponents to paid leave say—and feds often repurpose other kinds of leave and vacation—why isn’t that good enough? 

Wenger Federal employees do get sick leave, they do get vacation time, they do have some good number of weeks for vacation time and sick time. But it’s just not adequate to take care of people in many of the situations we described here. It’s not enough. And it’s especially not adequate if you think about it, with a new child. You can say, people don’t need time away from work like that. But what happens if your baby gets sick, six months in? Or you get very sick, like that? Then you might have already used up all your other, existing holidays, leave and insurance. People do use it all up, and don’t have any more. That’s a hazard of the current “system” where people borrow from other kinds of leave for these kinds of very normal situations. It is not ideal.

Many opponents say, as a country, we cannot afford such a generous new benefit—can you comment?

Wenger: Yes, that is one more problem. There are many naysayers who say we can’t do this, we can’t afford this—that it’s “extravagant.” But it’s always perplexing to me that all other OECD countries seem to be able to do it. It seems to me on these kinds of issues, it’s often “we can’t do it, we can’t do it, we can’t do it”—until we can. And then, suddenly, we can do it, funny enough. The point is, of course we can do it! That’s what I want to say about this. There are so many countries that already do it. The generosity of these kinds of benefits in, say, Germany, and many other countries would blow people’s minds, you know? Six months in some countries, twelve months of leave available in others. And they manage. This just does not break economies. That’s a myth.

So, what is it about our country, that many people have this erroneous belief?

Wenger: I really think many people here are just stingy on these issues—and it’s irrational when you look at other advanced economies. They don’t even see the reality of the other countries—they lack perspective on this. It’s a problem.

How strong a factor is paid family leave in attracting the right kinds of job candidates—are today’s job candidates attracted by family leave and the like?

Wenger: I think that is difficult to gauge exactly. But, if you are young and thinking of starting a family, you are more sensitive to the benefits of this kind of benefit. I think it’s hard to say. It’s part of a package of things on offer, and good employers tend to offer good packages. In the end, it’s hard to disentangle the recruiting effects of offering good health insurance, life insurance and vacation time from something like a decent amount of family and paid family leave.

The current White House talks up better family leave laws, and meanwhile downtalks federal employees and workers—so, is this president offering genuine support to see better leave laws enacted?

Wenger: My attitude about these things is this: There’s a ton of political noise out there. Let’s see what the president proposes, let’s see what the House and Senate do on the issue, and let’s permit them all to speak with their actions. We would do well to focus on their actions rather than their tweets.

Is there any other area like family leave that is or should be a hot issue right now—with respect to benefits for employees and their families?

Wenger: Yes, there are a few such issues. A very important one is phased retirement. We have an aging workforce, and yet we have not come up with a way to get people into transitional retirement—so-called phased retirements, bridge retirements, part-time retirements, all these kinds of partial retirements. These are not complete retirement, as we’re used to—“the gold watch after a few decades and you are gone” model. That is a model that doesn’t really exist so often anymore, yet we act like it does. And with federal employees we are facing a glut of retirements, and yet we are not hiring fast enough—so we need to retain more of the older employees’ abilities and expertise. We need to be doing far more types of phased retirements. Where you have people stepping down from higher-pressure and more time-consuming jobs, and into something a little less so—bridge jobs. This is very important going forward. This is related to aging population though, not non-wage benefits as we’ve just been discussing. But it’s an important issue, to answer your question.

So, the federal government needs do to more—as it might with paid family leave—to recruit, retain and maintain better productivity from their workforce? 

Wenger: Yes. I would say it would be interesting to see the federal government think and act more strategically—there are many ways for it to do a better job of recruiting, and of hanging on to more of its expertise, with paid family leave,  better phased retirements, and many other ways. 

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