WASHINGTON — A proposal in Congress would expand paid leave benefits for federal workers, including almost 150,000 in Florida, to include paid medical leave if they or someone they care for gets sick.
Federal employees are currently eligible for up to 12 weeks of unpaid medical leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act. A 2019 federal law granted federal workers up to 12 weeks of paid parental leave, but a bill proposed by Rep. Carolyn Maloney, chairwoman of the House Oversight and Reform Committee, aims to expand those benefits to provide up to 12 weeks of paid medical, caregiving and military leave for federal employees and to expand eligibility to U.S. Postal Service employees. To qualify for benefits, federal employees must first complete at least 12 months of service.
The House Oversight and Reform Committee approved the bill last week; the next step is a vote by the full House.
While opponents questioned the need for additional benefits for federal employees, proponents say the bill would serve as a model for future paid leave legislation for all Americans.
“It would ensure [federal] workers in Florida and federal workers across the country have this necessary paid leave that, I think the pandemic really proved, we need now more than ever,” said Diana Boesch, a policy analyst at the left-leaning Center for American Progress.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 147,400 federal employees live in Florida, including 28,100 in Tampa.
“In Florida right now, 63 percent of working people are not able to take FMLA leave because they’re either not covered or they can’t afford to go without pay,” said Vasu Reddy, the senior policy counsel at the progressive National Partnership for Women and Families. “This paid leave, at least for the federal employees in Florida, would make them able to afford to take leave when they have these family caregiving needs.”
But not everyone seems convinced about the need for the bill.
Kentucky Rep. James Comer, the top Republican on the House Oversight and Reform Committee, said during a recent hearing that the proposal would be providing “perks” to federal employees who already have too many benefits.
The bill would give “more benefits for federal employees who already enjoy job security and a lavish set of benefits not afforded to most American workers,” Comer said during the hearing. “We need to put the American people first, not the special interest of bureaucrats.”
Reddy disputed that description, saying that “paid leave is not a perk, because caregiving is a necessity, it is a basic necessity of life. And it also is not an easy task.”
“Being there with a new child or helping a family member who is struggling with mobility, these are physically and mentally and emotionally demanding tasks that are a part of the basic responsibility of being a responsible family member,” she said.
Paid leave would be most beneficial for lower-level federal employees who may be living paycheck-to-paycheck and can’t afford to take any unpaid time off work, according to Darren Brooks, a human resources expert at Florida State University.
Angela Rachidi, a senior fellow at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, said requiring employers outside the federal workforce to offer paid family and medical leave could cause wages to drop.
“You have to come up with that additional compensation to offer the paid leave to everybody,” said Rachidi. “So some workers might prefer to have higher wages (and) not have paid leave.”
Reddy said the bottom line is that the bill would ensure that federal employees would not have to choose between their health and their job and would be able to afford to take leave when necessary.
“These are doctors and scientists and food inspectors, and people who keep Florida running and safe. I think this is a really important thing that will materially improve the lives of Florida working families,” Reddy said.