Nicole Morio works for the Social Security Administration, helping Americans navigate their way to a financially secure retirement. Yet her own financial situation is anything but secure.
The 36-year-old had a baby four weeks ago. And the federal government doesn’t offer its more than 2 million workers paid leave after the birth of a child.
Morio said she can barely pay the rent on the apartment she shares with her husband, who is a self-employed commercial cleaner, in Staten Island, New York, where they’re raising three kids under the age of 4. They are behind on the electric and gas bills, and she isn’t making her student loan payments, Morio said.
There’s this notion out there that federal workers get great benefits, but that’s just not true, Morio said. “We’re not covered the way people think we are. I am being forced to choose between taking care of my family or paying the rent.”
There’s a chance things could change.
A proposal to give federal employees 12 weeks of paid time off to care for a baby or ailing family member or to deal with a personal health issue, the Federal Employees Paid Leave Act, might actually make it into law. The move would be a huge step forward for the largest employer in the U.S.
The provision was passed as part of a defense spending bill in the House of Representatives this summer. The Senate then passed a version of the bill that didn’t include the provision.
However, there are signs that it’ll still wind up in the bill’s final version, which should emerge from the reconciliation process shortly after Congress comes back from recess.
Last week, the Senate voted on a nonbinding provision (called a motion to instruct) in support of adding paid leave for federal workers into the final version of the bill. It was technically voted down, 47-48. However, four key Democratic supporters missed the vote because they were out campaigning for the 2020 presidential nomination: Sens. Elizabeth Warren (Mass), Bernie Sanders (Vt.), Cory Booker (N.J.) and Kamala Harris (Calif.). They all support the resolution.
More surprising: four Republican senators voted in favor of the resolution: Susan Collins (Maine), Lisa Murkowski (Alaska), Rob Portman (Ohio) and Shelly Capito (W.Va.).
In other words, a majority of senators actually support paid leave for federal workers.
“It’s a really huge step,” said Michelle McGrain, a federal affairs manager at the National Partnership for Women & Families. “The fact that this was even brought up for a vote and four Republicans felt it was untenable to vote against paid leave really shows the environment on this is shifting.”
President Donald Trump and his daughter Ivanka have both been supportive of paid family leave. A White House official told HuffPost they’re encouraged to see the progress here. The official declined to comment on the recent Senate vote because the administration doesn’t comment on motions to instruct.
“The fact that this was even brought up for a vote and four Republicans felt it was untenable to vote against paid leave really shows the environment on this is shifting.”
Giving federal workers paid time off ― to care not only for newborn children but also for sick family members ― would be a potential game-changer for the U.S., which is the only developed country in the world that does not guarantee paid time off for new mothers. The move could pave the way for a nationwide policy.
“As the largest employer in the country, the federal government should be leading from the front when it comes to family-friendly policies, and yet parts of the private sector definitely has us beat on paid leave benefits,” said Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-NY), who authored FEPLA 10 years ago.
The largest private employer in the U.S., Walmart, started offering paid parental leave last year.
The added benefit could also help the federal government recruit and retain workers, Maloney said.
Women of childbearing age were 31% more likely to quit federal employment than men of the same age, according to a 2009 report published by the Institute for Women’s Policy Research. That study estimated that giving federal workers paid leave would keep 2,650 women from quitting their jobs every year.
Government jobs, once considered steady and secure, if a bit lower paying, have lost some of their appeal in recent years thanks to a series of government shutdowns.
“We’re looking to hire a lot more people, and we want younger people who can have their entire career here,” said Krystle Kirkpatrick, a 32-year-old customer service representative for the Internal Revenue Service who works near Salt Lake City.
Kirkpatrick said she was considering a career in nursing but chose government work because of the benefits ― a consistent schedule, good health insurance, a retirement plan. Paid leave would certainly add to the package. “Paid family leave is a big selling point and a big deal for families,” she said.
Kirkpatrick, who has two kids, ages 7 and 13, said she recently had to scrounge together her sick leave to be with her father last year when he had heart surgery. “Things like that are scary,” she said. “You want to just drop everything and go, but you rely on your job and you need your job.”
Americans do overwhelmingly support paid family leave ― 8 in 10 say that mothers should have access to maternity leave, according to one Pew Research Center survey. However, there isn’t as much consensus on how to fund a national policy.
And over the past year or so, a few Republicans have come up with their own ideas for policies, which mainly involve borrowing money from other places, such as Social Security, unemployment insurance or tax credits. The Republican proposals typically only cover leave for new parents ― not family leave to care for sick loved ones or your own illness. About 75% of the unpaid leave workers currently access via the Family and Medical Leave Act is in the personal illness category.
Family leave for federal workers would be funded differently than any of these proposals. The bill passed in the House would pay for the provision by selling unused Department of Defense web addresses and from making some other small adjustments.
As part of a Defense Department bill, “it’s a drop in the bucket compared to a wall or nukes,” said Shilpa Phadke, vice president of the women’s initiative at the Center for American Progress. “It’s a rounding error.”
Right now, federal workers who need leave must cobble together their sick time. For women who work for the government and need maternity leave, it means when they actually do get sick or have a sick child at home, they’re out of sick leave. Morio, the Social Security worker, said she recently came to work with a serious ear infection.
She is rooting for paid leave to pass.
“It shouldn’t be political,” she said. “It’s human rights.”