Paid family leave: Expert discusses the potential perk for feds

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:

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.

For the full interview with Wenger, view the March 18 issue FEND.

Reader comments

Thu, Mar 21, 2019 Anne AK

I audit many of Federal contractors and do not see ANY yet that offer this. So I question the honesty of that statement. Also very few countries actually offer this and to do so requires finances that simply aren't available.

Fri, Mar 15, 2019 Jim

All other big industrial countries have paid family leave. Feds and other employees should get it. Crazy that we don't yet. PASS THIS BILL!

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