Rethinking Leave Benefits

maternity-leavePresident Obama’s memorandum directing the Office of Personnel Management and Federal agencies to implement leave practices that support parental leave was a good start. It requires agencies to advance sick and annual leave to Federal workers for birth or adoption of a child. The memo points out that the United States is the only developed nation in the world without paid parental leave.

That statement actually understates the degree to which US labor policies are out of step with the rest of the world. In a 2014 report, the United Nations International Labor Organization studied parental leave policies of 165 member nations. Only 2 – Papua New Guinea and the United States of America – fail to guarantee paid maternity leave. The President’s new policy will improve the lot of Federal workers, but much more could be done with a comprehensive parental leave bill that provides a requirement for paid maternity leave and a separate grant of maternity leave in addition to regular sick and annual leave.

The problem with simply using the sick and annual leave provisions of the existing law is that they are not enough for many people. Recovering 240 hours sick leave that was advanced will take more than 2 years. That means a new mother has no sick leave on the books and will not for more than 2 years. Here is an example: A woman who has been working for the government for less that 3 years earns 4 hours of sick leave and 4 hours of annual leave per pay period. If she has been working 2 years and taken average amounts of leave, she most likely would have 2 weeks of sick leave and a few days of annual leave on the books. Under the new policy, she could be advanced all of the annual leave she would earn in the remainder of the leave year and up to 240 hours of sick leave. Combining her accrued leave and the advanced sick and annual leave, she could get about 11 weeks of paid leave prior to and following the birth of a child. Sounds good so far. But what happens when the child gets sick? Or needs a regular check-up? Or the family wants to take a few days vacation or visit family? Or the mother gets sick? Even worse – what happens if she gets pregnant again? There will be no way she can get paid leave for an adequate amount of time.

If we want to keep saying how important children are and how critical it is for a child to have time to bond with his/her mother before being shipped off to day care, we need to rethink parental leave. I recognize there are very different arguments for paternity leave versus maternity leave, so my focus today is on maternity leave. I have said before and continue to believe the US government should be a model employer. That means we need to offer paid maternity leave for every employee. Yes, there is a cost to doing that, but the cost is most likely offset by the benefits to our society that come from children being given a good start in life.

Children are not the only beneficiaries – there is also a benefit to women who are having children. Having no leave available after giving birth adds stress and financial burden, and it can incentivize a woman to leave the government and work for an employer that provides paid maternity leave. She may also find that having little of no leave on the books may lead to her being labeled as a leave abuser. You may be thinking that is crazy, but I have seen cases where employees were labeled as leave abusers for taking sick leave for chemotherapy.

There are other changes to leave benefits that we should consider. For example, current law (5 USC 6302(d)) allows agencies to credit employees with all of their annual leave at the beginning of the year rather than earning it pay period-by-pay period. Doing so would allow employees to have more flexibility to schedule their personal time and it would be a tremendous benefit to new employees. It might also serve as a recruiting incentive. There is no cost to the government and no change in the law needed.

Sick and annual leave are among the best benefits offered to Federal workers. If we enhance those programs, we can make the government a better employer, serve as a role model for other employers, and perhaps help with some of the current morale issues in government.

You Didn’t Get the Job… Now What?

frowny-face-illustraties_421989One question I get a lot is “What do I do when they select someone else for my dream job?” It is a great question. We often set our sights on a goal, thinking if we get that one job we will be where we want to be. Goals can help focus attention, provide insight into what we need to do to advance, and give career moves some purpose. When everything works out, it’s great.

I can say from personal experience that it does not always work out. How we react when the dream job does not materialize is just as important as the preparation that gets us to that point. In my case, I wanted to be the HR Director for the Defense Logistics Agency. It is a great agency and I had worked there for 5 years as a GS-14 and GS-15. When the HR Director position became available, I eagerly applied. I made the best qualified list, was interviewed twice, and waited for the decision. They selected someone else who was already an SES in another agency. Needless to say, I was crushed.

Like anyone else who does not get selected, I was faced with a choice. I could complain. I could grieve. I could pout, or I could do take action to make my own opportunities. I chose the latter. Within a few months, I was selected for another SES position as the Deputy HR Director for the Department of Commerce. It was the first time in my career I had worked outside the Department of Defense. I learned a lot about the world of civilian agencies, worked with a number of high-ranking political appointees, and learned how to make things happen in a highly political environment. For the first time, I got exposure to the Hill. The experience I gained in that position made me a far better candidate for the dream job as DLA HR Director, which I was offered 2 years later. I served in that role for 9 years, then went on to be offered a political appointment as Chief Human Capital Officer for the Department of Homeland Security.

If I had gotten what I wanted originally, I most likely would not have been as effective at DLA and I would never have been selected for the DHS position. That is why I always offer the same advice when people are turned down for a job they really want. It is not the only job for you. Take advantage of the situation and keep moving. Much like water flowing into an obstacle, go around it and look for the next opportunity. It will almost certainly be there. There is nothing to be gained from holding a grudge, whining, or lashing out at the people around you. In my case, my experience brought me back to the job I had wanted, and then on to something even bigger. Every time I have had a major career disappointment, the result has been the same. I found something better. I learned and I grew. Anyone else can do the same.