WASHINGTON — The federal government’s 2.1 million employees will get paid parental leave for the first time, a galvanizing moment in the growing movement to bring the benefit to all U.S. workers.
The benefit, which gives 12 weeks of paid leave to mothers and fathers of newborns, newly adopted children or foster children, is part of a defense bill expected to receive final congressional approval Tuesday. President Donald Trump has said he will sign it into law.
The new policy aligns the federal government with many of the country’s most powerful companies, which have been leading the charge in aggressively expanding parental leave benefits. It also could set a high standard for other employers, both because of the length of time offered and because the policy would apply to all new parents, not just birth mothers.
“It’s a game-changer,” said Dan Sprock, director of people and culture at Fairygodboss, a women’s career website in New York City that advocates for equality in the workplace.
“It’s the largest employer in the country and it will definitely have an impact on other employers who are already shifting, and it will push employers who have been more reluctant,” he said.
The U.S. remains the only industrialized country that does not federally mandate paid parental leave. The vast majority of American workers do not get paid time off to care for a new child, and that will not change with the federal policy.
Even so, it’s the first major benefit expansion for federal workers since the 1993 Family and Medical Leave Act, which provides 12 weeks of unpaid leave.
Federal employees will be eligible for the benefit beginning in October 2020 if they have worked for the government at least a year. The employees are required to return to work for at least 12 weeks after they take the leave, though the government can waive that requirement for medical reasons.
“I’m so excited,” said Meredith Irby, 32, a social worker for the federal government in Little Rock, Ark. “The benefit will definitely make a huge difference. I already told my husband, ‘OK, so we can have a kid in October!’”
Parental leave was a priority for high-ranking Democrats, including Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif. Ivanka Trump, Trump’s daughter and adviser, also highlighted the issue.
Democratic Rep. Carolyn Maloney, the new chair of the House Oversight and Reform Committee, had urged the benefit for years, including a bill this year that would have also offered leave for workers needing to care for an ill family member.
Ultimately, congressional Democrats secured agreement with Republicans for a pared-down benefit without coverage for sick spouses and parents, part of a broader deal reached with backing by the White House after Trump’s proposed Space Force was included in the defense bill.
Several states already have paid family leave policies, including New York, California, New Jersey and Rhode Island.
Paid parental leave has been gaining traction, particularly as companies fight for talent in one of the tightest job markets in years. But without a federal leave policy, much of the progress has benefited higher-paid white-collar workers.
Most of the top tech companies offer well over 12 weeks of paid leave, at least for birth mothers, and the picture is similar at the biggest financial and consulting firms.
Still, more than 80% of U.S. workers do not have access to any type of paid family leave. For wage earners in the bottom 25%, just 9% have access to paid family leave. The ratio is 30% for earners in the top 25%.