Medical-leave bill has friends
Female federal workers have joined the push on Capitol Hill for legislation to help working families cope with medical emergencies.
President Bush vetoed last year's Family and Medical Leave Act, but House and Senate sponsors believe that this may be the bill's lucky year. New Labor Secretary Lynn Martin favored the bill when she was a House member, and congressional support is strong.
"We believe that the federal government should be a role model for businesses," said Lynn Eppard, legislative director for Federally Employed Women, a nonprofit lobby group that backs the bill. The legislation applies to both public and private-sector workers.
For federal workers, the bill would guarantee up to 18 weeks of leave a year for employees facing family demands such as serious illness or the birth of a child. For private-sector employees, the guaranteed leave time would be slightly lower -- 12 weeks. Other contingencies covered by the bill include adoption, illness of a parent or the worker's own illness.
Officials at the Office of Personnel Management said the bill is unnecessary because the federal government already allows workers to use sick leave and annual leave to meet family demands.
"We already have a policy in place that deals with parental leave," said OPM spokeswoman Sharon Wells. Wells added that employees with special needs may work out arrangements on an individual basis.
But Eppard of Federally Employed Women said this ad hoc system is part of the problem. For some federal workers, the leave policy works fine, said Eppard, while others find themselves unable to attend to family emergencies.
"By and large, the biggest problem is that the policy is inconsistent, in that it solely relies on the discretion of an independent supervisor," Eppard said.
Eppard noted that female federal workers historically receive lower salaries than do their male counterparts, and are more likely to quit for family-related reasons. A recent FEW study revealed that some 62 percent of female government employees are in the GS-1 to GS-7 salary bracket -- receiving $11,021 to $21,023 a year.
Given the federal government's recruitment and retention problems, and the resulting push for better salaries and benefits, Eppard said, the administration's rejection of the Family and Medical Leave Act is counterproductive.
"Certainly they are losing an opportunity to ensure greater productivity, boost morale and retain good, qualified, dedicated workers," Eppard said.
"Congress doesn't want to be telling a pregnant woman or the parent of a terminally ill child to go and get another job," said Rep. Marge Roukema, R-N.J., the bill's author in the House.
Sen. Barbara Mikulski believes the federal government should follow the lead of private sector employers who have offered a "good guy" bonus to soldiers returning from the Persian Gulf.
The Maryland Democrat recently took to the Senate floor to drum up support for a bill that would cover the salary losses absorbed by government employees who served -- or are serving -- in Operation Desert Storm.
The bill would require the government to pay the difference between military earnings and civilian pay for federal workers activated for Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm. The measure applies only when civilian pay exceeds military pay.
Mikulski noted that many state and local governments, along with private-sector employers, already have stepped forward to supplement soldiers' military reservist and Guard salaries.
The move, which Mikulski applauded as "a good-guy bonus," ensured that a soldier's income was the same as if he or she had been earning a full wage back home.
"I believe the need for this legislation is clear, because federal employees serving on weekends in the military Reserve and the National Guard did make financial commitments related to mortgage and tuition on the expectation that they would have a certain salary level," Mikulski told Senate colleagues.
"The war interrupted those plans," she added. "Now they are back home seeing not only the warmth of yellow ribbons but the cold chill of unpaid bills."
The Congressional Budget Office has assured her that the legislation would not cost a cent in that Congress has already appropriated the money for those federal salaries, she said.
Mikulski has asked the Senate Government Affairs Committee to hold a hearing on the legislation, which may soon have a companion bill in the House. Growing interest in job-sharing among federal workers has prompted the Office of Personnel Management to launch an experimental program to help part-timers connect.
Dubbed the "OPM Connection," the pilot program takes advantage of the same type of computer network typically used for car pools to match workers interested in sharing a full-time job.
The program has been under way for six months in Los Angeles, Boston, Chicago and the District of Columbia.