Baby Steps in the Right Direction: Federal Workers Now Have the Right to Paid Parental Leave
Late on Friday, December 20, 2019, Congress enacted, and President Trump signed, the annual National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA). Among other things, Congress reached a bipartisan compromise in the NDAA, and in exchange for establishing the U.S. Space Force, most civil servants will receive twelve weeks of paid parental leave, a long sought-after benefit.
More than twenty-five years ago, President Bill Clinton signed the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) into law. Since that time, large employers, including the federal government, have been required to provide 12 weeks of job-protected leave to their employees to recover from their own serious health conditions, to care for their immediate family members with serious health conditions, or for the birth, adoption, or foster-care placement of a child. In short, workers could not be fired for taking three months of leave because they had a baby or they (or their family members) were sick. While the law was a step in the right direction, the FMLA did not require employers to pay employees during this leave. As a result, parental leave frequently has been unpaid leave.
The United States is one of the only countries in the world that does not guarantee a period of paid parental leave. However, with the passage of the 2019 NDAA, the federal government will now provide most civil servants with 12 weeks of paid leave following the birth or adoption of their child. Federal employees will no longer have to spend months banking all their accrued sick and vacation leave so that they can continue to receive a paycheck while bonding with their babies. These employees may also, if they wish, extend their parental leave by using their accrued sick and annual leave.
Conditions for using new parental leave
There are three important conditions on the use of the new parental leave.
- First, the FMLA requires employees to provide their employers with not less than 30 days’ notice before utilizing job-protected leave for pregnancy, adoption, or another planned medical event. (This notice period is flexible depending on the employee’s particular circumstances, such as in the case of premature labor or unexpected pregnancy complications.) The new law additionally requires federal employees to agree in writing–before taking parental leave–that they will return to work for at least twelve weeks after their leave ends. If the employee fails to return to work at the end of his or her parental leave, the government may recoup the cost of its contributions to the employee’s health insurance premiums. There is an exception, however: if the employee is unable to return to work for reasons beyond the employee’s control, or due to a serious medical condition, then the government will not attempt to recover the expense from the employee.
- Second, under a compromise, employees who use the full 12 weeks of paid parental leave will not be permitted to use any additional unpaid FMLA leave during that same 12-month period.
- Finally, and perhaps disappointingly for those planning or expecting a baby in the next nine months, the paid parental leave benefit will only apply to births or adoptions occurring on or after October 1, 2020. It is also important to note that FMLA leave to care for one’s self or an immediate family member suffering from a serious medical condition remains unpaid; this new paid provision applies only to parental leave. Despite this, the 2019 NDAA takes a major step towards securing paid leave for all American workers.