As a part of a frugal family of five I have become an expert in navigating the Byzantine rules and legalese that govern parental leave for federal employees. However, October 2020 marks a big change in the rules surrounding parental leave for executive branch employees of the US federal government. As a result, I wanted to put a post together highlighting the new parental leave policy to help federal employees who are expecting the birth of a child. Please note that this is a personal blog, the following post are my own thoughts, not legal or human resource advice. If you have specific questions, contact your union (if you are a bargaining unit employee) or your Human Resources department.
Parental leave for federal employees prior to the Federal Employee Paid Leave Act
Before talking about the new rules for parental leave, I wanted to explain how parental leave used to work. I’ve been on both sides of this equation, first as an employee with young children, and later as a supervisor.
Prior to the Federal Employee Paid Leave Act, federal employees could use Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA) leave when they had a child. FMLA provisions apply to many jobs in the United States, not just federal jobs. Furthermore, the FMLA protections merely state your employer can’t fire you if you want to take 12 weeks of unpaid leave in a year following a medical emergency (or childbirth). Federal employees were somewhat lucky in that they could use their annual leave or sick leave for part of the 12 weeks of FMLA leave. If you could not afford to take unpaid time off, your parental leave was essentially limited to your leave balance.
Federal employee paternity leave rules
Another odd provision of the FMLA act is that fathers are officially only allowed to take time off to care for the mother following childbirth. To quote OPM, “An employee caring for a family member following childbirth is entitled to use sick leave for the period of the birth mother’s incapacitation. There is no provision in law or regulation that permits the use of sick leave to care for a healthy newborn, bond with a healthy child, or for other child care responsibilities.”
Therefore, as a father, I could only use sick leave during the first 6 weeks following childbirth, (i.e. the generally accepted “time of incapacitation”). This had significant implications for our own leave strategies
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My parental leave story within the federal government
We had our first child when I was 25. I’m not sure what your life was like at 25 but my wife and I weren’t exactly swimming in wealth. My wife had just enough paid time off to take 6 weeks off of work. We planned for her to return to work 6 weeks postpartum. Since we couldn’t send our child to daycare until she was 8 weeks old, I was planning on taking 2 weeks of FMLA after my wife’s maternity leave. However, I learned the hard way that I couldn’t use FMLA and ended up taking 2 weeks of “vacation” trapped inside with a newborn in the middle of winter.
Now that my kids are bigger, I can’t imagine how we got through those first few months with our firstborn. We both worked full time with a 2-month-old. Also, I feared people would think I did not take my job seriously. I showed up at work 24 hours after my daughter was born. Now that we are close to FI, writing that sentence makes my stomach churn. However, at the time, I *really* needed my job. I’d heard people grumble about other fathers being lazy for taking time off around the birth of their child. I wanted to demonstrate I was a good employee worth keeping around. I abandoned people that needed me and went to work.
My leave with kids 2 and 3
Although I don’t remember all of the details, I know I took more time off after kids 2 and 3. I probably took a week off for each of them. Moreover, I learned that you don’t have to use FMLA leave consecutively, so after the first week, I used plenty of sick leave within the first 6 weeks to help my wife as much as I could. I would have loved to be able to take my leave *after* my wife returned to work. But it simply wasn’t an option. Also, I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the more money we had in the bank, the safer I felt taking parental leave. In all cases, I was taking paid leave. As my wealth grew, I cared less about how people viewed me as an employee.
Understanding the Federal Employee Paid Leave Act
As of September 13th, I still have not received information on how the Federal Employee Paid Leave Act will be implemented in my Agency. However, OPM has issued an “interim final decision” in the federal register about how the leave will be applied. (Side note- what *is* an interim final decision?? Is it interim, or is it final?) Here is what we know.
Paid parental leave will be in leu of the unpaid FMLA leave
OPM has stated that leave under the Federal Employee Paid Leave Act (FEPLA) can be substituted for FMLA leave. Therefore, while FMLA establishes that you can take up to 12 weeks of unpaid medical leave, FEPLA states that up to 12 of the weeks granted under FMLA can be paid.
You are still limited to 12 weeks of medical leave per year
An important consequence of FEPLA as a substitute for FMLA is that you are limited to 12 weeks per year. Therefore, if your father had a heart attack and you took two weeks of FMLA to help him recover, you would be limited to only 10 weeks of FEPLA later in the year upon the birth of your child. This may be especially important this year. The Families First Coronavirus Relief Act (or CARES act) leave is also considered FMLA. People who used CARES act leave to care for a child whose school closed during the pandemic would have that time deducted from their FEPLA leave amount. (Need help tracking this leave, download your federal employee leave record here!)
Both parents can use up to 12 weeks of FEPLA leave
If both parents work for the government, FMLA leave limits the amount of leave per birth to twelve weeks combined per birth. However, FEPLA changes this limitation. Both parents are allowed to take 12 weeks of paid leave. The interim guidance clarifies that this time can be used for “care and bonding” with the newborn. And either parent may use this leave any time within 12 months after the birth of the child.
You cannot use FEPLA for bed-rest or other prenatal care
The interim guidance states that the leave can only be taken after the birth of a child. Furthermore, OPM states that unpaid FMLA or sick leave is available for mothers who are unable to work before their due date. (Note also that this leave would reduce the amount of paid leave under FEPLA.
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You forfeit FEPLA leave 1 year after the birth of the child
If you don’t use FEPLA leave within a year of the birth of your child, you lose the leave. You cannot have the leave paid out as cash. Nor can you bank it for a later date. It’s like someone handing you an ice cream cone on a hot day. You might as well eat it, otherwise it will melt.
While FEPLA is now the law, I can imagine that there will be parents who are afraid to take it. Or employees who do not use the full 12 weeks because that might be culturally unacceptable in their workplace. For example, with my first daughter, I wanted to demonstrate my dedication by showing up immediately after the birth.
Ultimately, we need to change workplace culture if we want people to use FEPLA leave. (For me, gender roles and programming played a role in my rapid return as well.) However, having a newborn is an insane amount of chaos. We shouldn’t resent people for taking 12 weeks of paid leave when we had none “back in the day”. As a supervisor, I really want to normalize my employees taking their full 12 week benefit.
Federal employees need to return to work after parental leave
Before you take FEPLA leave, you need to state that you will return to work for 12 weeks. This is similar to a lot of training programs in the government. (i.e. If the government pays for a year of your schooling, you need to remain in government for a year).
This means that if you’re planning on quitting after the birth of your child, you cannot get 12 extra weeks of pay through FEPLA. Note that if a medical emergency happens during the childbirth, you may get out of this clause. The guidance states you don’t have to come back if birth causes a “continuation, recurrence, or onset of a serious health condition (including mental health)”.
I truly hope that if you’re reading this article that you don’t fall into one of those categories. But it’s good to know what your rights are if tragedy happens.
Would paid parental leave for federal employees make a difference?
I sent out a request for federal employee parental leave stories on Twitter. I got a great response from @LeanOutEngineer. She shared that she had only been working for the government for 15 months when she had her first child. Because she had so little leave banked, she ended up working through labor, leaving work only when her contractions were 4 minutes apart. She had her baby 4 hours later and returned to work after 6 weeks. (Even though she still couldn’t sit on her office chair because of birth trauma).
@LeanOutEngineer reminded me that to earn 6 weeks of paid leave, you’d need to work for the government for 60 weeks without taking a single hour of sick leave or annual leave.
KB also shared his story with me.
My wife is due the 18th of September its looking like she will be late but the fact that we go from 12 weeks full paid to 0 weeks paid based on a potential two week difference is absolutely wild.— KB (@Kbrown199121) September 13, 2020
KB points out that for several families, the timing of their child’s birth can have a huge impact on their finances and leave. And Cory O’Dell is just able to take advantage of paid parental leave for federal employees.
We’re due in November so this will help us immensely. Grateful it’s happening but sad for those who weren’t able to take advantage.— Cory O’Dell (@CoryODell91) September 13, 2020
Update: Links to agency guidelines for parental leave for federal employees
(Please email me if you have a public facing site that details your policy. Thanks!)
This article summarized the new Federal Employee Leave Act. Again, the article represents my personal views of parental leave for federal employees. This post does not constitute legal or human resources advice.
Are you a federal employee who has taken parental leave? Let me know your thoughts. Leave a comment!
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