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Paid Parental Leave Helps Families and the Economy

Today the House will vote on whether or not to provide paid parental leave to federal employees. I can think of no better time to enact this important legislation. In most families, both women and men work, and new parents need time off to care for their child.

The Federal Employee Paid Parental Leave Act of 2009 is a modest bill. It provides only four weeks of paid leave after the birth or recent adoption of a child to most federal employees—although it does allow the Office of Personnel Management to bump up the leave to eight weeks after considering costs and benefits. This is far less than is common among every other developed nation, where all workers have the right to paid parental leave, typically lasting at least 12 weeks.

Conservative opponents are shouting that it isn’t fair to provide federal employees with new benefits when private-sector workers are being told to be thankful that they have jobs at all and suffer cuts to their wages and benefits.

But it’s the conservatives who are out of touch. The writing is on the wall: Working families need paid time off when they have a child. The federal government can provide paid parental leave with a relatively small investment, and in doing so it shores up family budgets and ensures continued spending by federal employees.

In the short term, a lack of paid parental leave means that family income takes a harsh blow when a new child arrives and new parents must cut back on goods and services in the private-sector economy. Two-parent families typically need the income of both parents, and single parents have no one else to rely on. Women’s earnings are increasingly important to family well-being. Women contribute 44 percent of family income in dual-earner couples, according to a recent survey by the Families and Work Institute, and women are the sole breadwinner in a rising number of families.

In the longer term, family incomes and the broader economy suffer because women who do not have access to paid maternity leave earn less over time. Men and children suffer, too, because men are generally the higher-wage earners and therefore take unpaid leave less frequently. Lack of paid parental leave deprives men of the benefit of bonding with and caring for their new infant.

You may be thinking that this argument is overblown. Federal employees can already take paid parental leave by using their paid sick and annual leave. But there are serious limitations to allowing paid parental leave only through accrued sick and annual leave.

Employees can only use sick leave for their own illness or to care for an ill family member, which means new fathers typically cannot use it. Younger employees are more likely to be new parents, which means that they have less time to accumulate sick and annual leave. Employees with their own medical needs are at a serious disadvantage, too, because they may have no accumulated sick or annual leave when a new child comes along.

What’s more, all new parents need additional sick leave in the first year of the baby’s life to take the child for immunizations and well-baby checkups. This bill would allow workers to take four weeks of paid parental leave without first having to use up all of their sick and annual leave. This provision provides greater equity between workers, and ensures that sick and annual leave are available for the purposes that they were intended.

Paid parental leave will help the government recruit and retain the brightest minds to deal with our country’s most challenging problems. Many workers, particularly women, are attracted by more generous benefits in the private sector—76 percent of women working in large private-sector firms have access to paid parental leave, as do 48 percent of women working in small businesses, according to an annual survey of employers conducted by the Families and Work Institute. Low-wage workers and men may currently have more paltry access to leave, but this bill allows the federal government to serve as a model employer for offering full parental leave benefits to all employees.

Ann O’Leary is a Senior Fellow at American Progress and is the executive director of the newly founded Berkeley Center for Health, Economic and Family Security located at University of California-Berkeley School of Law.