Given all the drama taking place inside the Capital Beltway this holiday season, it would have been foolish for government workers to expect a little something extra under the Christmas tree this year from Uncle Sam. But, lo and behold, a miracle: Through the most unlikely of circumstances — a backroom negotiation between Congress and the White House that literally stretched into outer space — tens of thousands of Marylanders are poised to receive the unexpected, yet well-deserved gift of 12 weeks of paid family leave.
That provision, contained in the Fiscal 2020 National Defense Authorization Act, was apparently the price extracted by Congressional Democrats in exchange for President Donald Trump’s insistence that there be a separate branch of the military called the “Space Force” within the U.S. Air Force that would lead military operations in space (presumably communications and surveillance satellites). Strictly from a Maryland point of view, what a deal. For a bit of Buck Rogers lingo (and maybe some cool patches and presidential photo ops), an estimated 174,053 Maryland residents who are civilian employees of the federal government will have the ability to take much-needed paid time off in the event of a birth, adoption or fostering of a child.
Family leave is nothing new. President Bill Clinton signed the Family and Medical Leave Act into law nearly 27 years ago. But it only guaranteed unpaid leave. Maryland has followed a similar path requiring unpaid leave from medium-sized and above employers in the state. The problem is that many workers simply can’t afford to take anything close to 12 weeks off without a paycheck. Increasingly, employers are stepping up to provide that benefit. That government, whether federal, state or municipal, should be at the vanguard of that movement, too. Last year, Maryland did something about that, passing legislation expanding parental leave for all Maryland state and higher education employees to allow up to 60 days of paid leave (including existing annual and personal leave) joining just a handful of states and the District of Columbia that have taken similar action. The legislation, although initially opposed by Gov. Larry Hogan, was signed into law and went into effect in October.
Why the expansion into paid family leave? Not just because it’s a nice thing to do for parents as well as others who need the time to care for an ailing family member and perhaps even themselves, but because there’s a broad societal benefit to keeping families intact and children properly nurtured while preventing bankruptcy and other financial ruin, and keeping Americans who have the ability to work in the labor force. Advocates estimate that only 17% of Americans have access to paid family leave right now. And more than one-third don’t qualify for unpaid protections either. Yet polls suggest an overwhelming percentage of Americans support paid family leave, a number that often includes political conservatives who feel strongly that a parent should be home with a child.
How much will it cost the taxpayer? Estimates vary but advocates believe it might actually save the government money as it reduces the need for costly recruitment. The measure would no doubt be enhanced if it provided paid leave for non-parenting needs (much as the unpaid leave policy allows) but that may be something for the future.
Still, a bit of context is required to appreciate the magnitude of this action. The paid leave addition to the Pentagon spending plan has moved forward even as the House Judiciary Committee weighs two articles of impeachment against the president and while — as this historic conflict unfolds — the same administration and Congress have reached an agreement over a new North American trade agreement. Both are, of course, significant developments but there is a certain irony that if impeachment goes as expected and Senate Republicans balk at doing their constitutional duty while the U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement proves a mixed economic bag (good for U.S. auto workers, for example, but bad for U.S. auto buyers), paid family leave might prove have the more lasting impact and prove the most forward-looking of this week’s political machinations.