More than 2 million Americans likely will soon have access to mandatory paid parental leave.
The Senate overwhelmingly passed legislation Tuesday that would provide federal workers with 12 weeks of guaranteed paid time off for parents following the birth, adoption or fostering of a child.
The policy, which would apply to the 2.1 million civilian workers employed by the federal government, is part of a broader $738 billion legislative package on defense spending for the government's 2020 fiscal year.
The spending bill, which the Senate passed on a vote of 86-8, now heads to the desk of President Donald J. Trump, who is expected to sign it into law this week. The legislation earlier passed the House of Representatives, on Dec. 11.
The bipartisan agreement comes at a time when the U.S. lags behind most of the world in providing paid leave to workers. Rep. Carolyn Maloney, D-N.Y., chairwoman of the House Committee on Oversight and Reform, said in a congressional hearing last week that the U.S. is one of just two countries in the world without any sort of mandatory paid leave, the other being Papua New Guinea.
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"The U.S. is dead last in the world in terms of not providing any sort of paid leave," said Wendy Chun-Hoon, co-director of Family Values @ Work, a group that advocates for paid family leave.
The legislation would be the first update to federal family leave policy in a generation, since the Family and Medical Leave Act was enacted in 1993. That law provided employees with up to 12 weeks of unpaid time off for personal illness and care of a newborn child or sick family member. However, it only covers roughly 60% of the workforce due to exemptions for firms with fewer than 50 employees. In addition, eight states and the District of Columbia have enacted paid family and medical leave policies.
Proponents of paid leave say the legislation would represent a step forward for the country, especially since the federal government is the largest employer in the U.S.
"It's the government deciding to put this in place for its own workforce, and it's a significant workforce," Chun-Hoon said.
At the same time, there's much room for improvement, according to advocates, since the bill doesn't cover paid leave for family caregiving or personal injury. The majority of Americans who rely on the Family and Medical Leave Act do so for family caregiving and personal injury, not for parental leave, according to Chun-Hoon.
"The victory lap is somewhat circumscribed because there's still more work to do," said Rep. Gerry Connolly, D-Va., a senior member of the House Committee on Oversight and Reform.
In all, only 19% of U.S. workers have access to paid family leave through their employers; roughly 40% have access to paid personal medical leave through employer-provided temporary disability insurance.
The text of the Federal Employee Paid Leave Act, the bill providing 12 weeks of paid leave for federal workers, was added to the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2020. The defense bill is part of a package of appropriations measures that the president needs to sign by Friday to fund government agencies during the upcoming fiscal year and avert a government shutdown.
In addition to a mandatory paid leave policy, the legislation would establish the U.S. Space Force, President Trump's proposed sixth branch of the military. The parental leave policy is projected to cost the federal government about $3.3 billion over five years.
Federal employees must be in federal service for one year to be eligible for the benefit and would have to return to work for at least the length of leave taken (or else pay for the amount of leave taken).