How much paid parental leave should there be?

How much paid parental leave should there be?

This story from The Hill popped up in my news aggregator a little while ago. Sometimes I don’t get stories until a day after they were published…

Anyway, the essence of the story is this: Congress and the President have a tentative agreement to give all federal employees 12 weeks of PAID parental leave.

Current law allows military members to get 12 weeks of paid family leave, while civilians get 12 weeks leave without pay and are paid by using accumulated annual or sick leave.

To qualify for the new benefits, employees must have been working for the federal government for at least a year and stay in their posts for at least 12 weeks after returning from leave. The requirement could be waived for a physical, mental or other problem out of the parent’s control. 

I’m past the “new parent” point of my life, but of course, have kids having (or presumably who could be having) children over the next decade. I wonder what this looks like for them–and for the country–if this occurs?

If all federal employees are guaranteed 12 weeks (and I presume this doesn’t just mean only one parent) if they work for the federal government, what does that do for the need for temporary employees? Or are federal employees expendable enough that if one in an office is gone for 3 months, there won’t be a need for a replacement? A quick look at the GAO website suggests that employees earn 13 days of vacation during their first 3 years of employment, and 20 days from years 3-15. They also get 26 days of paid vacation after they’ve worked for 15 years (although one would assume that most of those taking parental leave would be in one of the first two categories). They get 13 days of paid sick leave per year, it looks like, and that can be accumulated.

So employee A has worked for the government for 1 year. She’s got about 5 weeks of paid leave, between vacation and sick leave. And now she’s going to get 12 more weeks paid for when she goes on parental leave? That’s about a third of the year that the taxpayer is paying employee A, without getting any production out of her.

Don’t get me wrong: I don’t think it’s bad for people to take time off when they bring new babies or other children home. My questions are these:

  1. How much time should the taxpayers be on the hook for?
  2. If federal employees get this, will there then be a demand for state employees?
    1. How much will these things cost the taxpayer?
  3. If government employees get 12 weeks of paid parental leave (separate and apart from any PTO that they may have accumulated), will we move in the direction of mandating the same thing for employees of private businesses?
    1.  What would that cost employers who have a workforce made up of significant young people?
    2. If employers are mandated to go down this path, what does that do to their cost of doing business? Will employers go out of business? Will prices for the goods or services go up for consumers?

Maybe this is a good idea from a policy perspective, and that investment made in employees time with their families will pay itself back many times. I’m sure it’s well-intentioned–parental time with newborns (or newly adopted children) is important time for bonding. And I speak with some experience when I say that the time spent at home with my three kids wasn’t a “vacation.”

But, I think that we need to look at it more broadly, and think about what could go wrong. Some will say “nothing will go wrong. Some European countries have been doing this for years.”  And that’s true.  But I think it’s also important not to compare ourselves to other countries–many of whom have very different political and economic cultures than we do.

I think we should all ask very serious questions–not about whether it’s a good idea for parents to be able to stay home with their kids, but rather about whether it’s a good idea for taxpayers (in the case of government employees) to pay the price for this–especially when very few businesses are giving 12 weeks of paid leave in addition to other PTO.

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