The XX Factor

Obama to Announce New Family Leave Plan for Federal Employees

U.S. President Barack Obama understands that in most families, both parents work.  

Photo by Aude Guerrucci/Getty Images

President Obama’s project of un-lame-ing the lame-duck period continues this week with Thursday’s expected announcement that he will direct federal agencies to offer up to six weeks of paid leave to employees after the birth or adoption of a child. It’s part of a larger White House push to improve the family and sick-leave rights of workers. “For the majority of American families, it is no longer the case that one parent is the breadwinner while the other is the caregiver,” a White House fact sheet on the issue for the Council on Women and Girls explains. “The economic stability of American families depends in part on policies that help them balance work and care-giving obligations.” Obama will also call on Congress to pass a bill giving all American workers up to seven paid sick days a year and to create a $2 billion fund to help states start up their own family and sick-leave programs.

Unfortunately, according to the New York Times, Obama “needs congressional approval to require federal agencies to provide the six weeks of paid parental leave,” which is as likely to happen under this Republican Congress as passing a law protecting abortion rights. Without that approval, however, “the president will sign a memorandum to mandate that agencies advance new mothers and fathers a six-week chunk of paid time off.” The solution falls well short of the White House goal of “workplace flexibility and access to paid leave; affordable, quality child care and elder care” for everyone, but it’s a start. 

Right now, federal workers do get paid sick leave and vacation time, but it’s not mandatory for federal agencies to offer paid maternity or paternity leave. The Family and Medical Leave Act, passed under Obama’s Democratic predecessor, Bill Clinton, grants all workers the right to 12 weeks leave to care for newborn children, but it’s unpaid leave, which means that it functionally doesn’t exist for most workers who need those paychecks to get by. While the president’s announcement will only cover federal workers, the shift will hopefully put some market pressure on other employers to improve their family-leave benefits, lest they lose good workers to government jobs. 

Too many workers must make the painful choice between caring for their families and paychecks they desperately need, the White House fact sheet says. It would be nice if we had a Congress that understood these issues—particularly since congressional Republicans are busy beavers when it comes to stripping away your right to decline motherhood.