The NDAA isn't perfect, but paid parental leave is an important win for all
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There’s an important skill I was never taught in graduate school that would have served me well during my 12-year career at the State Department: how to ask colleagues to “donate” their vacation days to me.

When I was 26 years old and pregnant with my first child, I had four years of federal service under my belt. What I didn’t have, like more than 2 million people across the country employed by the federal government, was paid parental leave. Until now, the Voluntary Leave Transfer “donation” program has been our best option.

Wednesday, when the long-awaited 2020 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) comes to the House floor, that can change. The bill would guarantee all federal civilian employees 12 weeks of paid parental leave. It would be the first major benefit expansion for federal employees since the Family and Medical Leave Act was passed in 1993. And it would change countless lives.

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Many on the Hill are vocal opponents of the NDAA – with good reason.

It won’t feature all or even most amendments that lawmakers fought for over the past several months of bitter negotiations. Those provisions would have removed PFAS - “forever chemicals” - from millions of Americans’ drinking water; addressed funding for the border wall, which will now be deferred to the FY20 Appropriations process; and helped to end the United States’ unconstitutional wars against Iran and Yemen. Perhaps what is most alarming is that will greenlight this administration’s eye-popping $738 billion military budget at a time when even military leaders agree that more money should support diplomacy.

As the CEO of a national network of 2,000-plus veterans, frontline civilians, policy experts, and political professionals, I share the frustrations and disappointments of the NDAA’s opponents. As a full-time working mother of three and the founder of a global membership organization that increases women’s participation in foreign affairs, I know that right now, this NDAA is our best chance to empower federal employees, their families, and communities across the country.

Here’s what parental leave looked like for me and the thousands of women I work with: as a junior employee, I had to approach senior colleagues who accrued a higher rate of vacation or sick days and ask them to “donate” them to me. I had to expend professional capital to support my personal health needs. It was an awkward negotiation, to say the least. I was far from alone; federal Civil Servants, whose childbearing years also coincide with their lowest levels of leave accrual, have no paid parental leave of any kind. It’s also why every woman I know worked until the last possible moment to begin her maternity leave. It’s why I commuted to the State Department on a motorized scooter while carrying my twins. It’s why every pregnant federal employee I know jokes -- darkly -- about the possibility of giving birth in their office. And it hurts families on the back end (and women, especially) when they reach retirement and have far less leave to cash out when they depart federal service.

The 2020 NDAA paid parental leave provision is the single best way to ensure that the nation’s top talent is attracted to federal service and that our government retains that talent. Right now, highly qualified individuals are forced to weigh their family health and finances against their dedication to public service. This bill could lead to cost savings for taxpayers, as better conditions lead to higher retention rates and lower turnover, which are critical considerations for hard-to-fill roles across the federal workforce whether for those who speak fluent Chinese or who are on the cutting edge of quantum computing.

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As the nation’s largest employer, the federal government can raise the bar for employers across the country. It can also pave the way for a national paid leave program that is long overdue and critical in addressing the snowballing caregiving needs our nation has already begun to face as baby boomers age.

People serve in the federal workforce because they believe in the mission and want to improve the lives of all Americans. It’s time to tell them we’ve got their back.

Jenna Ben-Yehuda is the President and CEO of the Truman National Security Project and Founder of the Women’s Foreign Policy Network.