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Obama's Missed Opportunity on Parental Leave

Francis Barry writes editorials on politics and U.S. domestic policy for Bloomberg View. He was director of public affairs and chief speechwriter for New York City Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg. He is the author of “The Scandal of Reform: The Grand Failures of New York City’s Political Crusaders and the Death of Nonpartisanship.”
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The U.S. is the only developed country that doesn’t guarantee paid maternity leave. President Barack Obama wants to change that, starting with federal employees. Yet the federal government already grants paid leave to tens of thousands of workers: those who it is trying to fire or discipline. And therein lies the potential for a compromise with Republicans.

Obama seeks to give new parents who are federal employees six weeks off with pay. (In the meantime, he has also directed federal agencies to advance new parents six weeks of sick leave if they haven't already accrued it, which they can take for child care.) Republicans may not like the policy’s price tag -- about $250 million -- but it could be paid for with savings from reforms to the civil service system.

A 2014 report by the Government Accountability Office found that during the three previous years, 53,000 federal employees were put on paid leave for one to three months, and 4,000 more were on paid leave for up to a year or longer -- at a cost of $775 million in salary alone.

And that figure doesn’t begin to reflect the true costs of the broken system. Last spring, the Partnership for Public Service issued a report that described the civil service system as antiquated, unaccountable, inflexible, litigious and disconnected from the modern labor market.

Some of its recommendations can be achieved through executive action. For instance, there is a probationary period for all federal employees that expires automatically after 12 months. It would be far better to require managers to affirm that employees have earned the right to stay on the job before they receive job protections that few workers in the private sector enjoy. In New York City, changing teacher tenure from a default policy to an affirmative decision (and giving principals the ability to lengthen the probation period) cut the percentage of eligible teachers earning tenure from 94 percent to 56 percent, as principals opted to extend teachers’ probationary status.

Obama could take such steps on his own, but to achieve larger reforms and savings, he would need to enlist Republicans. Instead, however, he is asking them to layer a costly new benefit onto a broken personnel system.

By doing so, he is acting more as a union leader than as an executive who oversees a civilian workforce of about 2.5 million people -- or as a president who needs Republican support to pass his plan. That’s a shame, because there was a deal to be had with Republicans, who are generally in favor of sweeping away arcane regulations.

And it’s not too late to strike that deal. There is no shortage of areas where cooperation is possible:

  • The 1949 salary schedule and job classification system should be streamlined and updated to reflect a workforce that is now largely professional, not clerical.  
  • Workers should have more opportunities to earn raises based on performance, rather than seniority or the number of employees they supervise.
  • Agencies should be granted greater discretion over hiring, a process that the Partnership for Public Service calls “so slow, complex, opaque, and imprecise in its ability to identify the best candidates that it is more likely to impede than facilitate the government’s ability to hire well.”
  • The grievance process for employees who have lodged complaints or face disciplinary actions -- which now can take more than 18 months -- should be far simpler and faster.
  • Rules that stifle managers’ ability to make decisions about how to allocate resources and workers -- a problem that has grown to farcical proportions, as Philip K. Howard writes in his latest book, “The Rule of Nobody” -- should be lifted.

Obama would have been wise to use the prospect of paid parental leave as a carrot to entice union leaders to endorse reform legislation, which would have made it easier for Democrats (and even some Republicans) to vote for it. Having forgone that option, if Obama still hopes to secure a paid leave law, he will need to present his executive management committee -- the Republicans who control Congress -- with a more attractive offer.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Francis Barry at fbarry5@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Christopher Flavelle at cflavelle@bloomberg.net