The measure, which attracted the backing of 24 Republicans and passed 258-154, carves the four paid weeks out of the 12 weeks of unpaid leave that are available to all workers under the Family and Medical Leave Act. The paid leave is provided after birth, adoption or the placement of a foster child.
A provision of the bill allows the director of the Office of Personnel Management, the government’s HR department, to write regulations to extend the paid leave to eight weeks if the agency deems it appropriate.
The prospects for the bill in the Senate, where it died last year, are unclear. But if its momentum continues, it could set an example that influences private-sector employers.
Proponents of the legislation said it is needed because too many workers cannot afford to take unpaid leave during the first few months of a child’s life—a time that they say is crucial to human development. For low-earning single mothers, unpaid leave could result in depriving the family of income.
“Paid leave ensures that having a child does not further destabilize families during tough times,” said the author of the bill, Rep. Carolyn Maloney, D-New York, during the House floor debate. “We’re here to show that this Congress doesn’t just talk about family values. It values families.”
Republican opponents also cited the economy. But they said that it is unfair for taxpayers to finance paid leave for federal employees when private-sector jobs and retirement accounts are being slashed and the federal deficit has hit $1.8 trillion.
“The economy is in recession,” said Rep. Pete Sessions, R-Texas, on the House floor. “Hello! Hello! Wake up, Washington. Somebody’s going to have to pay for this.”
The GOP pointed to a Congressional Budget Office estimate that the bill would cost $938 million over five years. Maloney, also citing CBO numbers, said the bill would cost $190 million in 2011. But she said it would not generate new government spending because the figure is based on workers substituting paid leave for unpaid time off.
The main sponsor of the bill in the Senate said that paid leave would help the government address a potential wave of retirements among its 1.8 million employees by attracting and holding on to younger staff.
“It’s an issue of recruitment and retention in the largest workforce in America,” Sen. Jim Webb, D-Virginia, said at a Capitol Hill press conference Thursday.
Webb, the author of the Senate bill, expressed optimism. “I feel very confident we’re going to get it done this year,” he said.
A possible change to the legislation while it winds its way through the Senate may have been previewed in an amendment offered by Rep. Darrell Issa, R-California.
Under Issa’s provision, a worker would have to use all accrued paid leave, such as sick time, before accessing paid parental leave. The parental time off would then be offered as a repayable advance on future leave. Issa’s amendment failed.
A 2007 survey by the congressional Joint Economic Committee showed that most of the Fortune 100 companies offer some kind of paid time off, often allowing new parents to apply accrued sick days to parental leave.
If the federal parental leave bill becomes law, it could influence private-sector policies. “It certainly will be a model,” Maloney said. Maloney, along with California Democratic Reps. Pete Stark, George Miller and Lynn Woolsey, introduced a bill in March that would provide 12 weeks of paid medical leave to all workers.
Although most of them opposed the federal parental leave bill, Republicans warned that it could become a touchstone.
“It will absolutely set a precedent for the private sector,” said Rep. Aaron Schock, R-Illinois, whose district includes the headquarters of Caterpillar.