The Necessity of Comprehensive Paid Leave for Federal Employees: “Paid Leave Is Not a ‘Perk'”

Over 2.6 million federal employees are not receiving paid leave for family caregiving, medical issues and military deployments. (Wayne Surber / Flickr)

In 2019, the Senate passed The Federal Employee Paid Leave Act (FEPLA), which permits federal workers up to 12 weeks of paid parental leave due to the birth, adoption or fostering of a child. This moment was “a huge step forward,” said Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-N.Y.), chairwoman of the House Committee on Oversight and Reform, at a recent hearing. “There were only two countries in the world—the United States and Papua New Guinea—that did not provide, at that time, paid leave for the birth of a child.”

FEPLA has been necessary in supporting leave for new parents—but gaps remain: The 2019 legislation does not sufficiently address the over 2.6 million federal employees not receiving paid leave for family caregiving, medical issues and military deployments.

To help bridge this gap, in January, Maloney introduced HR 564, the Comprehensive Paid Leave for Federal Employees Act, which would provide federal employees with 12 weeks of paid leave.

“There is much more to be done. We need to build on this historic achievement by bringing the federal government employment policies in line with leading companies in the private sector,” said Maloney at the June 24 “Leading by Example: The Need for Comprehensive Paid Leave for the Federal Workforce and Beyond” hearing, which brought Republican and Democratic politicians, small business owners and others to discuss HR 564.

Maloney’s new legislation aligns with President Biden’s American Families Plan (AFP), which too includes provisions for comprehensive paid family and medical leave. Introduced on April 28, the AFP also seeks to provide aid to American families, reduce child poverty, invest in teachers and education and subsidize child care, with the goal of boosting women’s workforce participation, which has fallen to levels not seen since the 1980s

With COVID-19 impacting the mental and physical health of American workers—especially women and people of color—the passage of HR 564 is necessary to sustain the wellbeing of the U.S, workforce. “As we’ve all learned in the past year, illness can strike any of us at any time,” said Maloney. 

The pandemic has shown “it is clearly in the interest of any employees, especially an employee who works in the public, to tell the employee to stay home when they are ill” or stay home if they need to support a loved one who is ill, said Everett Kelley, president of American Federation of Government Employees. Kelley argued caring for others should lay the foundation of the American public.

Lelaine Bigelow, interim vice president for economic justice and congressional relations at National Partnership for Women & Families, put a human face on the conversation of paid leave and FEPLA: When Bigelow was pregnant, she was prescribed bedrest due to an inhospitable cervix, or a period of hormonal imbalance while pregnant. Weekly doctor’s appointments and the emotional toll of pregnancy made it difficult to work. 

“Every moment I spent caring for myself and my pregnancy meant losing money and time later,” said Bigelow. She pushed herself to work harder than she should have for the fear that co-workers might think she was taking an easy route out by working from home.

Despite public support for paid family leave, the hearing was tumultuous. But Maloney defended HR 564 as “an investment in the people.”

“If we have learned one thing today, it is that paid leave is not—as my Republican colleagues claim—’a perk.’ Workers need paid leave to recover from serious illnesses, to take care of sick children, and to deal with the sudden military deployment of a family member. Having a seriously ill child is not a perk. Taking time to deal with active duty deployment is not a perk. As our nation seeks to recover from the pandemic, permanent, comprehensive paid leave is essential to support workers and the families who depend on them.”

“Everybody is hurt by the lack of paid leave in this country, whether it’s you directly or the economy or a business,” said Vicki Shabo, a senior fellow for New America’s Better Life Lab. “This is not a nice-to-have, it’s not a frill. It is a necessity for getting our economy back on track and creating households that are stable and secure going forward.”

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Juliet Schulman-Hall is an editorial fellow for Ms. and a senior at Smith College. She is majoring in English language & literature, minoring in sociology, and concentrating in poetry. Her beats include America's health care system, disability, global politics and climate change, and criminal justice reform and abolition. Follow her @jschulmanhall