Push to Extend Military Mom Leave Shifts to Senate

The Senate will debate a House bill to extend maternity leave. (Source: Army photo)

Advocates welcomed legislation that would extend maternity leave for U.S. troops but want lawmakers to broaden the bill to include spouses and adoptive parents.

The U.S. House of Representatives last week approved an amendment to the annual defense bill that, if adopted by the Senate and White House, would give women in the military an additional six weeks of unpaid maternity leave.

The legislation, known as the Military Opportunities for Mothers (MOM) Act, was introduced by Reps. Tammy Duckworth, D-Illinois, and Kristi Noem, R-South Dakota, and seeks to bring military policy more in line with federal law that gives civilian employees 12 weeks of family medical leave. But it would only apply to military moms -- not spouses or adoptive parents.

"If you really want to mirror the Family and Medical Leave Act that applies to civilians, then all three groups of parents should get the same leave," said Nancy Duff Campbell, co-president of the National Women's Law Center, an advocacy group in Washington, D.C., that promotes opportunity and advancement for women and girls. 

The bill comes as the military experiments with ways to boost retention amid a drawdown of forces resulting from the U.S.-led wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and automatic budget cuts known as sequestration.

The Air Force, for example, recently announced plans to join the Navy in offering a so-called Career Intermission Program, which would allow 20 officers and 20 enlisted personnel a year to transfer from active duty to the reserves for as many as three years to start a family.

"Some women ... leave the Air Force because they want to start a family," Lt. Gen. Samuel Cox, the Air Force's deputy chief of staff for manpower, personnel and services, said during a breakfast forum earlier this month. "So why don't we have a program that allows them, in some cases, to be able to separate from the Air Force for a short period of time, get the family started, then come back in?"

In some respects, existing military policy is more generous than federal law.

The Family and Medical Leave Act, signed into law in 1993 during the Clinton administration, allows eligible employees to take as many as 12 weeks of unpaid leave in any one-year period to deal with a family medical emergency, pregnancy or adoption. Employers can elect to pay employees for any portion of their time away from work, but aren't required to.

In the military, both maternity and paternity leave is paid and does not count against total leave days. Female troops are given six weeks of leave after childbirth and can take more time if it's medically necessary. Those adopting can take up to three weeks off. New fathers are given 10 days of leave at the discretion of their commander. 

Even so, the Defense Department's office of the undersecretary for personnel and readiness, headed by Jessica Wright, is bound by statute in administering the policy, so any change must come through Congress.

The House amendment would expand "maternity leave for the active duty Service Members by an unpaid 6 weeks to be in line with the Family [and] Medical Leave Act, while allowing commanders the discretion to call Service Members back to duty at any given time to maintain unit readiness," according to a description of it on the House Armed Services Committee's website.

A spokeswoman for Rep. Duckworth didn't immediately respond to an e-mail and telephone call requesting comment.

In a statement after the amendment passed, the congresswoman called it a "critical" piece of legislation. 

"Mothers in the military inevitably face separation from their children when they are deployed and serving our nation around the globe," she said. "Extending maternity leave for these women is the least we can do for those who sacrifice so much for our country."

Campbell welcomed the House provision as a "first start," but said she and other members of her organization will push senators for "a more complete provision."

"We need to be sure that we guarantee this leave for adoptive parents and spouses of women who give birth as well," she said. "That's what we're looking to the Senate to do."

Campbell said her group has already discussed the issue with Sens. Claire McCaskill, D-Missouri, and Kirsten Gillibrand, D-New York, both of whom sit on Senate Armed Services Committee. The panel, however, recently approved its version of the defense policy bill, known as the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2015, without a similar provision.

That means such an amendment would have to be introduced on the floor of the Senate. And with the chamber possibly still months away from debating its version of the defense bill, the likelihood of a broader proposal being introduced, let alone passing, is far from certain.

"It's a little hard to speculate what the possibilities for that are," Campbell acknowledged.

-- Amy Bushatz contributed to this report. 

-- Brendan McGarry can be reached at Brendan.McGarry@monster.com.

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