As Obama calls meeting on families, government lags on paid parental leave

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WASHINGTON -- The Obama administration criticizes the lack of paid parental leave in the United States, saying that changing family dynamics require modified policies.

Yet most of the federal government offers its employees virtually no paid parental leave. There's paid sick leave, paid annual leave -- and there's planning ahead. A federal employee on the job for at least four years who has saved up vacation or sick time can use it for up to 12 weeks of paid leave for pregnancy-related health appointments, childbirth and caring for the newborn. But for other federal employees, pregnancy often means unpaid leave.

President Barack Obama on Monday will host a White House Summit on Working Families to discuss workplace policies, including leave.

The conference comes two decades after Congress last changed federal leave standards in 1993 with the Family and Medical Leave Act. It promised workers a job-protected three months of unpaid leave for childbirth as well as familial and personal illnesses.

While the law does not cover more than 40 percent of workers in the U.S., most federal workers fall within the law's parameters -- as long as they have been in the job for a year.

To expand protections, Mr. Obama supports the Federal Employees Paid Parental Leave Act, which would require four weeks of paid parental leave.

The bill, which Rep. Carolyn Maloney, D-N.Y., has introduced eight times since 2000, passed the House of Representatives in 2009. It has never passed the Senate.

Advocates of paid parental leave have called upon the government to lead the way in creating paid leave policies.

"The nation's largest employer really should be a leader in family-friendly policies, but it has not kept pace with the changing American workforce," Ms. Maloney said.

White House senior adviser Valerie Jarrett said Friday that the president has "taken very deliberate steps to make the White House as family friendly as possible, beginning with the president putting in place a leave policy for White House staff soon after he took office."

Like all federal workers, White House employees can use accumulated paid leave when they have a child -- but unlike others in the federal government, those in the White House are guaranteed six weeks paid time off from the get-go, The Huffington Post first reported.

But "in order to have leave beyond that, it would require an act of Congress," Ms. Jarrett said.

Three months ago, Mr. Obama called on Congress to "join every other advanced nation on Earth by offering paid leave to folks who work hard every day."

As the only Western country without paid maternity leave, the U.S. ranks among just three countries worldwide that lack the policy altogether, according to a recent U.N. study.

The lack of paid leave has consequences. Without paid maternity leave, women at middle- and low-income levels frequently leave the workforce after having a child or lose seniority in their careers, according to the National Organization for Women.

"Women actually get forced out of work altogether because they don't have paid leave," said NOW president Terry O'Neill.

Being a mom has a greater bearing on wages than being a woman, according to a University of Massachusetts-Amherst report. Known as the "motherhood penalty" or the "mommy tax," women who have children will lose an average 19 percent of their wages after returning to work, according to a Southern Methodist University analysis.



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