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A Plea for Paid Parental Leave

By Stephen Barr
Friday, March 7, 2008; D04

Last summer, Amy S. Costantino suddenly went into labor and gave birth to twin sons -- 3 1/2 months premature. Each weighed less than two pounds, and they spent 90 days in a neonatal intensive-care unit.

She soon was confronted with a stark choice: use the sick leave and vacation time she had accrued over her 16-year career as a federal employee to be with her sons in intensive care, or go back to work and save the paid leave so she could be at home when her sons were released by the hospital.

Costantino, 39, decided to save the leave for when her boys came home. But, she said at a House hearing yesterday, "I often wonder if I made the right decision," especially when she thinks about not being at the hospital to feed and comfort her babies at their most vulnerable time.

Her account of trying to juggle family and work responsibilities wrapped up a hearing on legislation that would provide federal employees with eight weeks of full pay and benefits for the birth or adoption of a child. The hearing was held by the Joint Economic Committee and the House federal workforce subcommittee.

Too often, federal employees are forced to choose between their paycheck and their new child, said Rep. Carolyn B. Maloney (D-N.Y.), vice chairman of the joint committee, noting that "even the best-prepared workers face difficult choices when children need their care."

Maloney has championed paid parental leave for federal employees for the past eight years, hoping to make the government a role model for the nation's employers.

Studies show that the United States has not kept pace with other industrialized countries when it comes to providing paid family leave, and a new report by the Democratic staff of the Joint Economic Committee found that the federal government "lags far behind Fortune 100 companies," she said.

Maloney's proposal has encountered resistance, in part because of a lack of enthusiasm by the Bush administration, which says federal employees already have ample and generous benefits that can be used for maternity leave.

Employees, for example, earn 13 days of paid sick leave each year, which they can build up over the years without limitation. Most employees also earn from 13 to 26 days of paid vacation each year, and they may carry over up to six weeks of annual leave into the next year.

Yesterday, the administration offered Maloney and Rep. Danny K. Davis (D-Ill.), chairman of the federal workforce subcommittee, an alternative approach.

Nancy H. Kichak, an associate director at the Office of Personnel Management, said the administration recognizes that many employees cannot afford to take several weeks of unpaid leave and that there is a "gap in coverage."

But she said the administration does not believe fully-paid time off is the best way to help employees, saying that OPM favors a short-term disability insurance program for workers who wish to voluntarily purchase such coverage.

OPM is working on how to design the benefit, she said, and estimated the insurance would cost an employee about $40 per pay period. Kichak said this kind of program would be attractive to a broad range of employees because it would provide income when they could not work because of non-job-related accidents, illnesses and childbirth.

Costantino, who works for the Health and Human Services Department, said her supervisors did everything permitted by law to help her cope with the premature arrival of her sons, who she said are healthy and active.

She had accrued enough leave to take off for two months with pay, she said, noting that taking unpaid leave under the 1993 Family and Medical Leave Act was not an option for her family financially.

The twins have required a substantial amount of follow-up care, including three surgeries, Costantino said. Paid parental leave becomes even more critical if a child requires follow-up care, she said.

Asked by Davis whether the legislation proposing eight weeks of paid parental leave would have led her to make different decisions, Costantino responded with a "yes."

She would have used paid leave to be with her sons in intensive care, and her accrued leave to be with them after they came home, she said.

In other words, she would not have been forced to make a choice.

Talk Shows

House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.) will be the guest on "Inside Government," sponsored by the American Federation of Government Employees, at 10 a.m. today on FederalNewsRadio.com and WFED radio (1050 AM).

Art Gordon, president of the Federal Law Enforcement Officers Association, and Jon Adler, the group's executive vice president, will be the guests on "FedTalk" at 11 a.m. today on FederalNewsRadio.com and WFED radio (1050 AM).

Francis C. Spampinato Jr., chief acquisition officer at the Energy Department, will be the guest on the IBM "Business of Government Hour" at 9 a.m. Saturday on WJFK radio (106.7 FM).

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