When it comes to pay and benefits, there are many differences between military service members and the federal civilian workforce. Defense Secretary Ash Carter just reminded everyone of a big one: paid maternity leave.
Carter recently announced that the Defense Department would give female service members 12 weeks of paid maternity leave, one of several personnel initiatives aimed at improving the quality of life for military families. The move immediately doubles the amount of current paid maternity leave available to most service members (it’s a bit different for the Navy), and is four weeks longer than the average eight weeks provided by many employers in the United States.
Federal civilian employees do not receive paid parental leave. Democratic lawmakers for nearly two decades have tried unsuccessfully to pass legislation granting that benefit to civilian federal employees to care for a new child. President Obama has endorsed the idea in his last two budgets and through an executive action, in which he directed agencies to advance federal employees up to six weeks of paid sick leave to care for a new child or ill family member. Right now, the 1993 Family and Medical Leave Act provides up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave to most government and private sector workers for the birth or adoption of a child, or to care for seriously ill family members. Federal employees who give birth or adopt can tap their accrued sick and annual leave to avoid three months without a paycheck, but many bristle at having to use hard-earned leave when paid parental leave is becoming more prevalent in the private sector.
So, how can Carter just increase the amount of paid leave for new moms in the armed forces without legislation? The short answer: convalescent leave.
“The secretary has broad discretion to set convalescent leave for new mothers at the appropriate rate, so we’ll need no legislative changes there,” said Brad Carson, acting principal deputy undersecretary of defense for personnel and readiness, in a recent interview with Soundinvestments. “The 12-week benefit we’re giving is to allow mothers to recover from the trauma of giving birth, and allow them to resume their rigorous responsibilities of the armed forces,” Carson said. “The 12 weeks is about their health.”
Convalescent leave is granted to service members to recover from illness, injury, or childbirth. Because giving birth is considered part of convalescent leave, the secretary, as Carson said, has broad discretion over determining how much service members receive. Before Carter’s announcement, female service members in the Army and the Air Force received 42 days of convalescent leave post-pregnancy, while female service members in the Navy and Marine Corps received 84 days. (Carter’s January announcement supersedes the Navy secretary’s July decision to expand paid maternity leave to 18 weeks; ultimately, the paid maternity leave benefit will total 12 weeks for all female service members.)
That broad discretion, however, does not apply to the civilian workforce at Defense, or anywhere else in the federal government. Advocates for providing paid family leave to civilian feds took notice of Carter’s announcement, which marked the second package of personnel reform efforts that he has rolled out as part of his larger Force of the Future initiative.
“The Pentagon is instituting policy that FEW [Federally Employed Women] and other organizations have been seeking from Congress for years,” said Michelle Crockett, FEW national president. “Providing servicewomen paid time off to care for their newborns shows that DoD understands that if it wants to retain these talented military personnel, it needs to provide benefits that support military families. If the Pentagon can provide paid parental leave to its personnel, the rest of the federal government should be able to as well.”
The National Active and Retired Federal Employees Association also praised the changes at Defense, and urged Congress to follow the department’s lead by passing paid parental leave for the rest of the government.
Other family-friendly Defense proposals that don’t require legislative change include a pilot program allowing service members to freeze their eggs and sperm, preserving the option to start a family later on if they choose. “It was one of the reforms that we proposed that we were able to convince other stakeholders in the department was of merit,” said Carson. “We have a program for it, and it will be funded at the beginning of the new fiscal year.”
However, Carter does need Congress to approve increasing paternity leave from 10 to 14 days for male service members, as well as expanding leave to care for an adopted child to the second parent in dual-military marriages. There are 84,000 military-to-military marriages.
In addition, Defense is seeking a legislative amendment to existing authorities to allow service members to postpone moving to a new duty station if they decide that it’s in the best interest of their family to stay put. Frequent moves – a fact of military life – add extra stress on military families, and are often why people leave the service. “Some of the services are very interested in this idea, perhaps giving people that right for additional service obligations,” said Carson. “So what we’re trying to do is clarify that these kind of non-pecuniary benefits get offered by a service in exchange for an additional service obligation.”