If it eventually becomes law, the bill would be the first nationwide paid family leave law, even though it would apply only to one group of workers. California, New Jersey and Washington state have paid family leave laws for private sector workers.
Passage of the paid leave bill is the second major change in family leave law the Democratic-run Congress has considered. The first extended the present Family and Medical Leave Act -- which gives workers 12 weeks of unpaid leave to care for family members or newborns and says companies must return them to their prior jobs -- to military families. President Bush signed a bill including military leave, but his position on the paid leave bill is unknown.
The Labor Department is trying to weaken the present unpaid leave law by rewriting its rules to make it tougher for workers to take leave.
"Most people would be surprised to learn the government does not currently provide any paid parental leave for its employees. Employees must cobble together accrued annual and sick leave if they want to receive a paycheck while they are out," said the lead sponsor, Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-N.Y.). "With over 2.7 million employees all over the country, the federal government should be a leader in family-friendly workplace policy. Right now, we're lagging behind.
"The current practice of saving unused vacation time and sick days may work for the lucky family who never gets sick or takes a vacation, but it is unrealistic for most families," she added. "Most families no longer have a stay-at-home parent to care for a new child and they can't afford to forgo pay for any length of time."
Testifying for the bill earlier this year, NTEU President Colleen Kelley said "It is time for the government, as the largest employer in the country, to make family leave real and not a mirage few can use." She reiterated the point that many workers -- private and public -- can't use unpaid family leave because they can't afford to lose paychecks.
As an example, "we applaud the law giving families 26 weeks to care for their wounded soldiers, but 26 weeks is a long time to be without paychecks," Kelley said.