More than 2 million federal government employees will get paid parental leave for the first time with a new bill, as the U.S. slowly catches up to the rest of the developed world with its family leave policies.
The Senate gave the final congressional green light on the National Defense Authorization Act on Tuesday. It already passed the House with bipartisan support and now heads to the president's desk. President Donald Trump indicated at a summit last Thursday at the White House that he would sign the bill, calling it a “historic deal.”
The defense bill includes 12 weeks of paid paternal leave for employees who give birth, adopt or foster a child.
"Right now, we are one of only two nations in the world that does not provide our workers with any form of paid family or medical leave," Congresswoman Carolyn Maloney, D-NY, who helped write the family leave language in the bill said in a statement last Friday after it passed the House.
Maloney added that when she was pregnant with her first child she asked about her office's leave policy and was told "What leave?" and that "Women just leave."
"When this bill is signed into law, it will be a tremendous victory for 2.1 million federal employees who will no longer need to choose between being home with their new child or their paychecks," she added.
Some advocates expressed hope that if the largest employer in the nation now offers paid parental leave, other employers will follow suit.
Only 17% of civilian workers had access to paid family leave in 2018, according to most recent data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, and 89% had access to unpaid family leave.
A United Nations report released earlier this year found that the U.S. was the only country among the 41 "high- and middle- income countries" it looked at with no national paid leave policy for mothers, or for fathers. The U.S. ranked lowest on the report's list of family-friendly policies among rich nations.
Some experts even blamed the lack of paid family leave policies in the U.S. as a factor in fertility rates hitting a 30-year low.
The National Partnership for Women and Families, a nonprofit advocacy group, called the inclusion of paid parental leave for federal workers a big win for women, and especially women of color.
"This measure promotes economic justice for women and women of color," Debra Ness, the president of the organization, said in a statement, noting that more than 40 percent of federal workers are women and nearly 1 in 5 are women of color.
"The racial wealth gap and other racial disparities make it more difficult for families of color to save for and absorb the effects of a serious personal or family medical issue -- including the birth or adoption of a new child," she added. "Ensuring that they do not have to worry about getting paid while taking time off to welcome a new child or recover from childbirth is critical to moving toward equity in the federal workforce."
Ness said she is optimistic that the momentum from this new policy will bring about paid family leave benefits for all working people.