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More Paternity Leave, Higher Commissary Prices Proposed

Staff Sgt. Michael Mayo holds his newborn for the first time during Operation Homecoming at Hurlburt Field, Fla., Nov. 6, 2015.  (Photo: U.S. Air Force/Senior Airman Meagan Schutter)
Staff Sgt. Michael Mayo holds his newborn for the first time during Operation Homecoming at Hurlburt Field, Fla., Nov. 6, 2015. (Photo: U.S. Air Force/Senior Airman Meagan Schutter)

Military fathers or "secondary caregivers" would receive up to 21 days of leave after a birth or adoption under a measure included in the compromise version of the 2017 National Defense Authorization Act released Wednesday.

Fathers are currently granted 10 days of paternity leave after a birth and have no adoption leave benefits.

Under the rule, the "primary caregiver," including mothers who have given birth, would continue to receive up to 12 weeks of leave, with additional convalescent leave available if required by a doctor. Primary caregivers would receive up to six weeks of leave after an adoption.

Both the maternity and the secondary caregiver leave must be taken consecutively, the law states. And before implementing the change, Pentagon officials must issue a policy on what defines a "secondary caregiver" versus a "primary caregiver" in the case of an adoption, the law states.

The law also grants the Defense Department permission to make both maternity and secondary caregiver leave chargeable or require a one-for-one additional service obligation for each week of non-convalescent leave taken. That obligation, or "ADSO," could be forgiven as part of a re-enlistment incentive, it states.

But also included in the new law is a measure blocking the Defense Department from instituting its own leave rules without congressional approval, such as the change made early this year by Secretary of Defense Ash Carter, doubling military maternity leave from six weeks to 12.

"The committee considers this provision necessary to clarify that military leave is established by law and may not be created without express congressional authority," officials wrote in a report accompanying the measure.

Commissary Changes

Lawmakers have bypassed a commissary price increase pilot program, and have instead given the Defense Department's grocery system the OK to mark up goods systemwide, provided officials still can meet savings benchmarks, the legislation says.

That baseline, however, is not dictated by the law and must be set by the Defense Commissary Agency (DeCA) before it rolls out the new plan, known as "variable pricing."

Currently, commissary goods must be sold at cost plus a five percent surcharge, which pays for store upkeep and new construction. The system's remaining $1.3 billion in annual operating costs are currently funded by taxpayers. But legislators have long sought a way to eliminate the system's government subsidy while also maintaining patron savings, which are seen by many as a non-monetary form of military compensation.

In a report released early this year, Defense Department officials said the only way to completely eliminate the subsidy is to shut the system down. The new legislation looks to give officials a chance to find system savings through pricing changes and business optimizations without cutting them off from funding until the efforts are proven successful.

And if officials find that price changes and behind-the-scenes management changes don't work, the Defense Department will give them back whatever operating budget they lost, the legislation says.

"This provision will significantly improve the business operations of the commissary system and lead to greater efficiency in the delivery of high quality grocery products and services to commissary patrons without diminishing the current level of patron savings," lawmakers wrote in a report included with the bill.

The legislation also gives commissary officials the OK to contract with experts to help with the change. That provision was included because lawmakers don't believe DeCA can make the move on its own, the report says.

"The conferees remain concerned, however, that the current senior management of the Defense Commissary Agency may lack the necessary talent and skills to transform the commissary system into an efficient, high-performing purveyor of grocery products and services," the report states. "The conferees strongly urge the Department to engage experts in the commercial grocery industry to assist the Defense Commissary Agency in the transformation of the commissary system into a high-performing grocery operation."

This article was updated to correct the amount of leave a primary caregiver receives under the proposal after an adoption. The proposal gives six weeks of leave.

-- Amy Bushatz can be reached at amy.bushatz@military.com.

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