An Open Letter to My Congressman in Support of Paid Federal Maternity Leave

maternity leave, personal finance, Uncategorized / Wednesday, May 13th, 2015

Hello Rep. Garret Graves (LA-6, US House of Representatives),

I am writing you to voice my support of H.R. 532: Federal Employees Paid Parental Leave Act of 2015. I hope that you will support this bill as well. The bill is currently in the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee. I know that you are not on that committee but I wanted to reach out and let my voice be heard. I believe in the democratic system of governance and the expression of individuals through a representative government, and I ask you to hear my plea. Federal employees are not afforded any paid maternity leave and this bill would give them 6 weeks of paid administrative leave, allowing them to retain their full paychecks for longer, hopefully to actually make it financially to the 12 weeks of leave that the Family Medical Leave Act affords them. In a given year only a small percentage of the federal workforce would take advantage of this benefit and the costs can be borne out of an agencies discretionary spending and salary budget. Up to 30% of the federal workforce will retire in the next three years, paving the way for younger employees to take their place. Younger employees who look to the government as a model employer, who demand an appropriate work-life balance, and who want to raise a family while growing their federal careers.

Conservatives and liberals alike agree on the importance of the American family as the backbone of this country. Though they may disagree on what that family looks like, no one says that a mother and father should not do all they can to love and provide for their children, whether adopted or related. The FMLA is based on this understanding that families experience great joy and great suffering through seasons of life, whether through childbirth or grave illness. This law allows American families to be home with their loved ones to care for them in their time of need, which is great, but it does not go far enough.

God willing, we may all be able to experience the joy of parenthood one day, if we so choose. Statistically, our nation and our species depends on the majority of us becoming parents to keep this train going. The birth of a child is a blessed event to be met with joy and love. Yet many American families also meet it with fear and an empty pocketbook. Sure, we could argue that all pregnancies should be planned (improbable) and that parents should be financially secure and able to afford the costs of a childbearing and maternity leave (also improbable and unlikely). We can argue the same with retirement and health care but no one is repealing Medicare and Medicaid, but I digress.

Health and wealth are not usually afforded to a person at the same time. During our prime child bearing years when we are in the best health, we are usually not wealthy and are at the beginning stages of our careers. We are trying to make ends meet, grow our careers and families, buy a home, and try to pursue the American Dream. At the end of our careers when we have had the opportunity to save and grow wealth, we often find ourselves stripped of our health.

I believe that the United States is severely lagging behind the modern world in offering paid maternity and family leave. The Family Medical Leave Act, for the roughly 60% of the American women in the workforce that it applies to, only guarantees 12 weeks of unpaid leave for women and a promise that their job will be available for them to return to. Medical experts suggest that it takes at least 6 to 12 weeks to recover from childbirth, depending on the delivery and potential complications. New mothers are recovering from a major medical event, barely sleeping, surging with hormones, attempting to breastfeed, and then have to worry about how they will pay their bills. Many return to work much sooner than 12 weeks because they cannot afford to stay home, even if it is medically advantageous (or even necessary). Even after 12 weeks they often return to the office unable to give their all at work and are still mentally and physically recovering. I have friends that have returned to work after 4 weeks because they had to pay the bills and had no other options, especially if they worked for a business not subject to FMLA, were not afforded maternity benefits, and ran out of annual and sick leave.

Most Western nations offer paid maternity/paternity/adoption, most around 14 weeks of full or partial pay with some for up to a year or more (Canada, I will never again make fun of you). Nations like Sweden, Russia, and Croatia, pay for these programs through increased taxes. Our nation is quite tax adverse yet we all want happy and healthy families. Personally, I would like to see a federal or state maternity leave plan, similar to California’s, which is paid for through a slight tax increase and allows for women to take maternity leave with at least partial pay benefits.

I understand that the idea of a state or federal tax increase is unpalatable for much of the public. So let’s look at how employers handle maternity leave as an alternative.

Many employers offer some paid maternity leave as part of an employment compensation package. They want to attract top employees and retain them, so they offer full or partial maternity leave or offer short term disability group coverage through their company. These benefits allow their employees to stay home, recover, heal, and bond with their new child (all vitally important no matter what side of the aisle you sit on). Of course, many other companies do not afford these benefits to employees, and women and men looking for jobs today weigh these benefit packages to determine what job is the right fit for them and their current and future families. More and more companies see maternity leave benefits as an important tool for attracting and retaining quality employees and are adding or expanding it within their benefits packages.

Now for the federal government. They say you should write about what you know and as a 30 year old, married, female federal employee looking to start a family in the coming years, I have done some homework.

Federal workers are not afforded any type of paid maternity/paternity/adoption leave (unless you are a direct White House employee and they likely only would have a couple of people taking advantage of that leave benefit a year). Federal employees may save as much leave as possible, within the allowance of rolling over up to a maximum of 30 days of annual leave. Most employees in their prime child bearing years would not likely have upwards of 15 years of government service and thus earn the maximum amount of annual leave available, so most would max out at 19 days of annual leave (yes, that is more than some other employers offer but I can’t do the calculations for everyone). Hence the most leave an employee could generally cobble together would be 49 days if they took no annual leave for over 2 years which is, let’s be honest, very unlikely to happen. If a federal employee had that miraculous maximum of annual leave, they could get about 9 weeks of annual leave, maybe a few days more if there were a few holidays sprinkled in over that time period.

The official maternity leave policy for federal employees states that feds have to use their sick leave first and only for pregnancy and recovery from childbirth for the first 6-8 weeks of maternity leave, medically prescribed bed rest, doctor appointments, and serious illness of the baby or mother. Let’s be honest here. A pregnant federal employee is going to use their sick leave prior to childbirth. There are a flurry of doctor’s appointments, late mornings due to nausea and vomiting, as well as any potential complications and illnesses that may arise during 9 months of the most major medical event of your life. The maximum amount of sick leave a federal employee could accrue in a year would be 13 days. You could roll that over for a few years but again, most people use their sick leave since no one wants their office mate to come to work with the flu or even a cold. So if you had those 13 days of sick leave plus another miraculous year’s worth of sick leave saved, you could have 26 days of sick leave which could stretch for 5 weeks of sick leave.

Adding together that 5 weeks of sick leave and the 9 weeks of annual leave (and really, I don’t know anyone that has this much leave accrued), a federal employee could cobble together 14 weeks of maternity leave (just like Germany offers). That’s not too shabby, but it’s statistically improbable. What really happens is federal workers have to save as much sick and annual leave as they possibly can, pray that they have a healthy pregnancy, an uncomplicated delivery, and a healthy baby, and then stay home from work as long as they can afford and as long as their office will allow, usually up to 12 weeks.

Some offices are quite generous and will allow further unpaid leave to their employees, depending on the need of the agency or office, and some will allow advancement of sick leave. In fact, President Obama mandated in January 2015 that federal agencies (given appropriate circumstances) allow employees to advance up to 240 hours of sick leave to recover from childbirth or care for a sick child, and up to the annual maximum of annual leave, which is 19 days or less depending on where you are in the year. Sure, that sounds good but what it really means is that federal employees may have to give up their sick leave for up to 4 years and would only do that in dire circumstances for prolonged illness.

I have been a federal employee for five years and all the agencies that I have worked for have been supportive of families and have tried to be as flexible as possible on leave policies. Of course, they need their employees in the office to do the work of the nation and many offices cannot afford to allow an employee to be out on extended maternity leave for as long as they desire. Most federal employees are hard working and dedicated to their jobs. They want to go back to work, but they also want to do what is medically necessary for themselves and their baby. But the realities of life quickly catch up and those missed paychecks or rapidly depleting leave soon take their toll and women often return to work in less than 12 weeks.

Federal employees don’t go to work in public service for the money. They go to work for service to our country. They earn an honest wage that fairly compensates them for their hard work. Federal employees are respected for the work they do to keep our country safe and running (relatively) smoothly. But my friends are appalled when they learn that federal employees are not afforded any type of paid maternity leave, or even the option to purchase short term group disability insurance that covers post-partum recovery (I have called OPM, they don’t offer it and no insurance company offers it to individuals).

Women are becoming the top income earners in many families across the nation, especially among younger generations getting married within the last 5 years. Like myself, these women have to think long and hard about how and when they can financially afford to have children. If the breadwinner knows that their income will be diminished or depleted for a number of months, the pressure is on to save as much as possible to cover the costs of maternity leave as well as planning for possible medical complications pre-delivery. A woman’s salary is not second to her husband’s and yet she may be forced by biology to stop working for a time. In this changing workforce, modern maternity leave policies have to catch up. Parental roles are shifting to be more flexible based on the needs of that particular family. Though many men and women still choose to stay home with their children and forego working for a number of years (though some are essentially forced to stay home if their salary cannot cover the costs of childcare), maternity leave is medically necessary for a woman to recover from childbirth (including assistance from her spouse) and both maternity and paternity leave gives the child essential bonding time with both parents.

I think it would be economically and socially advantageous to pass H.R. 532: Federal Employees Paid Parental Leave Act of 2015. The federal government should be seen as a model employer and be able to attract and retain top talent to to the nation’s work. Affording 6 weeks of paid maternity/paternity/adoption placement leave for its employees is a step toward that goal. A healthier, happier, and more financially stable workforce would greatly benefit the country as a whole. Modern American families are the backbone of this country, so please support them.

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