Federal employees receive up to 12 weeks a year of unpaid parental leave for the birth of a new child, adoption or foster child care, and they can take paid sick or vacation leave during that time. The House is set to vote on H.R. 5781, the Federal Employees Paid Parental Leave Act, which converts eight of those 12 weeks of unpaid leave into paid leave.
Congress understandably wants to ease the tension between work and family for new parents, but federal employees already receive higher pay and more generous benefits than similarly skilled private sector workers. The Congressional Budget Office estimates the legislation will cost taxpayers $200 million a year. It is not fair to tax all Americans to pay for greater benefits for already well-off federal employees. Given the current fiscal situation, it is especially irresponsible. If Congress believes paid parental leave is important for federal workers, lawmakers should reduce spending on other federal benefits to pay for it.
Unfortunately, this bill is not standalone legislation. It is part of a larger push to require private sector employers to provide paid Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) and maternity leave benefits.
On the surface, this seems appealing. Balancing work and family is challenging, and paid maternity leave would ease the strain of childbirth for many families. However, the effects of a law rarely stop at what Congress intends. Requiring employers to provide paid maternity leave would have serious unintended consequences that would harm women in the workforce.
Employers care about the total compensation they provide their employees, not how they divide that compensation between wages and benefits. If lawmakers require employers to provide paid maternity leave, they will increase their spending on maternity leave benefits — and decrease working women’s wages by a matching amount. That is exactly how they reacted to previous laws that required employer provided health insurance to cover maternity care.
If anti-discrimination laws prevent employers from paying potential mothers less than other employees, companies will try to avoid hiring potential mothers in the first place. No employer wants the financial liability of pay a worker full wages over several months of not working. Employers will simply hire applicants — namely men — who are at no risk of going on maternity leave. A law intended to help parents balance work and family would harm the very people it is meant to help.