WASHINGTON — For the past four years, U.S. Sen. Brian Schatz has pushed legislation that would make paid parental leave a reality for the nation’s 2.1 million federal employees, nearly 20,000 of whom live in his home state of Hawaii.

His persistence appears to have paid off.

This week Democrats and Republicans agreed to terms on an expansion of the Family and Medical Leave Act that, if signed into law, would give federal, non-military workers 12 weeks of paid time-off to care for their newborn or adopted child.

Military service members already receive 12 weeks of paid parental leave.

Senator Brian Schatz takes questions during his town hall meeting held at Washington Middle School.
U.S. Sen. Brian Schatz has spent several years trying to secure paid family leave for federal workers. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

“It’s simply unfair to force people to choose between taking care of their brand new baby and earning a paycheck,” Schatz said in an interview with Civil Beat. “It’s about time that the U.S. government joined the rest of the developed world in terms of how they treat their employees.”

The provision, which was co-sponsored by Democratic Sens. Sherrod Brown, Chris Van Hollen, Jeff Merkley and Maggie Hassan, was embedded in the National Defense Authorization Act, one of the few pieces of meaningful legislation that garners bipartisan support and is typically signed into law each year.

The NDAA, as it’s more commonly known, lays out the policy directives for the U.S. military and can influence how the Defense Department spends its money even though the funds must be allocated separately through the appropriations process.

Parental leave was one of the more contentious aspects of negotiations, and as such one of the last provisions to be finalized.

Schatz said one of the hangups involved Democrats wanting to expand the benefit beyond Defense Department employees.

“That was one of the causes of the delay in adopting the defense authorization because we held firm,” Schatz said. “This was a big victory for workers and moms and dads.”

Part of the deal included Democratic support for President Donald Trump’s proposed U.S. Space Force.

The NDAA still must pass both chambers in Congress before heading to the president’s desk.

Trump has already signaled he will sign the bill into law. Once that happens, it could change what benefits private employers offer their own workers. State governments, too, could follow suit.

Other New Provisions

Paid parental leave wasn’t the only provision Schatz was able to secure in the NDAA.

He inserted at least three other pieces of legislation into the bill. Among them was a provision to force the Defense Department to develop “resilience plans” to deal with a changing climate and the increased severity of weather events, such as hurricanes and wildfires.

Schatz also highlighted legislation he co-sponsored with Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska that would help the Defense Department combat the sexual exploitation of children through increased training and partnerships with local law enforcement organizations.

According to Schatz’s office, the Defense Department’s computers were used at alarming rates to view, share and produce child pornography.

One study in 2018 found that the department’s network ranked 19 out of 2,891 in the nation when it came to peer-to-peer file trading of such explicit materials.

Legislation that was drafted in response to the January 2018 false missile alert in Hawaii was also included in the NDAA. That provision will ensure that it’s the federal government, and not state or local officials, who warn communities of incoming ballistic missile threats.

“This law will allow emergency alerts to operate under a very simple principle, which is that the people who know whether or not know there’s an ICBM heading for America should be the people who do the notification,” Schatz said.

“Emergency notifications are traditionally done by local governments — and that’s logical — but not when it comes to questions of whether or not we’re being attacked.”

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