Editorial: Limit paid leave to federal workers

The Detroit News

Shortly before Christmas, President Donald Trump signed massive budget bills that prevented a government shutdown — and also lumped in some expensive new programs. That includes paid parental leave for all federal workers, the first time that benefit has been included.

The president, along with the Republican-controlled Senate, didn’t seem to have a problem with adding more deficit spending to a budget already more than $1 trillion in the red. In fact, Trump, at the urging of his daughter and senior adviser Ivanka Trump, has made paid leave a priority of his presidency. 

Ivanka Trump, daughter and senior adviser to President Donald Trump, has made paid parental leave a top priority.

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The paid leave program has been championed by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and other Democrats, who have long pushed for an even more comprehensive program that would apply to all U.S. workers. 

Democrats and Trump hope expanding paid leave to 2.1 million federal employees will encourage more businesses to offer the benefit — and perhaps pave the way for more sweeping legislation. 

We would advise the government to tread carefully here. 

The paid parental leave benefit got tucked into the $738 billion National Defense Authorization Act that also creates the U.S. Space Force program.

The Congressional Budget Office expects paid leave to cost $3.3 billion over the next five years. 

For a country that’s now blown past $23 trillion of debt, that number may not seem like much, but small contributions are what got us to that level. 

The new program will give 12 weeks of paid leave to mothers and fathers of newborns, as well as newly adopted and foster children. It doesn’t include leave benefits for other reasons, however, including caring for an elderly parent or other medical-related issues. The majority of workers take leave for those needs.

The U.S. often is criticized for being the lone industrialized country without a form of national paid parental leave. Yet anytime the government inserts itself into the private sector, great results don’t typically follow. 

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While only a small percentage of companies provide paid leave, many more are willing to work out these benefits directly with employees. Plus, more states are choosing to mandate paid leave.                   

“About a third of the population are in states that have those programs," says Rachel Greszler, research fellow in economics, budget and entitlements at the Heritage Foundation. “There is more access than reported.”  

Greszler says it makes sense for the federal government to work out paid parental leave with its workers, yet she would have liked to have seen other reforms coupled with the new benefit, including scaling back generous sick leave options that roll over and accumulate from year to year. 

And taxpayers may wonder why they have to pay for a benefit many of them don’t receive. 

Congress likely will be emboldened to pursue a broader paid leave program, but it would be best to leave these discussions between employers and their employees. Many businesses are offering the benefit to stay competitive. 

The strong economy and labor market are the best motivators for companies to expand perks to their employees. The government shouldn’t get in the way.