A Plea for Paid Parental Leave

Rep. Carolyn B. Maloney (D-N.Y.) is pushing for eight weeks of paid leave.
Rep. Carolyn B. Maloney (D-N.Y.) is pushing for eight weeks of paid leave. (Carol T. Powers - Bloomberg News)
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By Stephen Barr
Friday, March 7, 2008

Last summer, Amy S. Costantino suddenly went into labor and gave birth to twin sons -- 3 1/2 months premature. Each weighed less than two pounds, and they spent 90 days in a neonatal intensive-care unit.

She soon was confronted with a stark choice: use the sick leave and vacation time she had accrued over her 16-year career as a federal employee to be with her sons in intensive care, or go back to work and save the paid leave so she could be at home when her sons were released by the hospital.

Costantino, 39, decided to save the leave for when her boys came home. But, she said at a House hearing yesterday, "I often wonder if I made the right decision," especially when she thinks about not being at the hospital to feed and comfort her babies at their most vulnerable time.

Her account of trying to juggle family and work responsibilities wrapped up a hearing on legislation that would provide federal employees with eight weeks of full pay and benefits for the birth or adoption of a child. The hearing was held by the Joint Economic Committee and the House federal workforce subcommittee.

Too often, federal employees are forced to choose between their paycheck and their new child, said Rep. Carolyn B. Maloney (D-N.Y.), vice chairman of the joint committee, noting that "even the best-prepared workers face difficult choices when children need their care."

Maloney has championed paid parental leave for federal employees for the past eight years, hoping to make the government a role model for the nation's employers.

Studies show that the United States has not kept pace with other industrialized countries when it comes to providing paid family leave, and a new report by the Democratic staff of the Joint Economic Committee found that the federal government "lags far behind Fortune 100 companies," she said.

Maloney's proposal has encountered resistance, in part because of a lack of enthusiasm by the Bush administration, which says federal employees already have ample and generous benefits that can be used for maternity leave.

Employees, for example, earn 13 days of paid sick leave each year, which they can build up over the years without limitation. Most employees also earn from 13 to 26 days of paid vacation each year, and they may carry over up to six weeks of annual leave into the next year.

Yesterday, the administration offered Maloney and Rep. Danny K. Davis (D-Ill.), chairman of the federal workforce subcommittee, an alternative approach.

Nancy H. Kichak, an associate director at the Office of Personnel Management, said the administration recognizes that many employees cannot afford to take several weeks of unpaid leave and that there is a "gap in coverage."

But she said the administration does not believe fully-paid time off is the best way to help employees, saying that OPM favors a short-term disability insurance program for workers who wish to voluntarily purchase such coverage.

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