Pregnant staffers help congressman sell proposals for better benefits

U.S. Rep. Ruppersberger has 3 pregnant staffers at a time he wants to push a child care.

For eight years, Rep. C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger has pushed a bill to expand benefits for working parents. For eight years, it has failed to pass.

Now he has an opportunity to put his ideas into practice.

The Baltimore County Democrat employs 14 full-time staff members in Washington and Maryland.

Half are women.

At the moment, three are pregnant.

Prenatal visits and other appointments are presenting the small office with short-term scheduling challenges. The leave the expectant mothers plan to take after they deliver their babies will create longer-term staffing issues.

But Ruppersberger sees the situation as an opportunity to push for better work benefits for working parents — a cause President Barack Obama visited Baltimore to promote in January.

Obama called on Congress to pass a law that would give most employees seven days of paid sick leave. He signed an order giving executive branch employees six weeks of sick leave upon the birth or adoption of a child, and called on Congress to do the same for its employees.

Ruppersberger said he supports the president's call and urges private businesses to follow suit.

The United States is the only developed country that doesn't provide or require paid maternity leave. Ruppersberger said the country would be more productive if employers gave workers more support.

"When it comes to these type of benefits, you're only as good as your team," he said. "You've got to understand not just what they do at work but their family life."

Ruppersberger, a father and grandfather, offers staff members eight weeks of paid maternity leave and the option of taking five more weeks using sick leave or vacation time. He offers fathers three weeks of paid paternity leave.

The amount of maternity leave offered by members of Congress varies from office to office, but many offer more than six weeks. The chief administrator of the House found in 2010 that more than 90 percent of representatives gave their employees some paid family leave.

Federal workers now may take up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave. The Bureau of Labor Statistics estimated last year that 13 percent of American workers get paid family leave.

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, a New York Democrat, and Rep. Rosa DeLauro, a Connecticut Democrat, introduced legislation last week that would set up a trust fund to collect money and pay workers about two-thirds of their salary for up to 12 weeks. Benefits would go to parents on maternity or paternity leave, or workers who need time off to address a serious health condition or care for a family member.

Opponents of required paid family leave say small businesses can't afford to pay employees on leave while also paying overtime to co-workers or hiring temporary workers to fill in.

A spokeswoman for Republican Rep. Steve Chabot, the chairman of the House Small Business Committee, said he supports family leave, but believes the best way to help small businesses offer that benefit is by reducing taxes and regulations.

Ruppersberger's expectant staffers include his district director, who is due at the end of this month, his deputy chief of staff, who is due in the beginning of June, and his spokeswoman, who is due in mid-August.

"There will be a few weeks of overlap between the maternity leave of all of us," spokeswoman Jaime Lennon said.

Ruppersberger said it can be difficult to find people to fill in for staff members on leave, but his office has a culture where "we back each other up."

Both the congressman and his staff call the children born to them while in his employ "Dutch babies." In 12 years in Congress, he says, there have been 13 of them.

He said he offers more maternity leave than most lawmakers because it enables him to retain the best employees. He said he has found that employees work harder and are more productive when they are offered flexibility.

"I'm an endgame person," he said. "If I don't do that I may not be able to keep these people."

Tara Oursler, Ruppersberger's chief of staff, says it's not easy to juggle the needs of her 16-year-old twins and a work schedule that includes committee hearings during the day, meetings at night and events on the weekend. But she said Ruppersberger gives staff members the flexibility to work from home or between offices in Washington and Timonium when possible.

"For those of us here, a big issue is finding good, affordable child care," she said.

Ruppersberger's legislation would increase incentives for businesses to provide child care, increase the Dependent Care Tax Credit and provide tax incentives for students to earn degrees in child care.

Ruppersberger has been sponsoring versions of the bill since 2007. It failed to pass during years Democrats held the majority in Congress, and it likely faces longer odds now that Republicans are in control.

But he said he continues to push the bill because the public supports expanded employee benefits, and eventually Congress will have to listen.

"I believe whatever you give, you get back," Ruppersberger said.

jgeorge@baltsun.com

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