The House Committee on Oversight and Reform met Thursday to discuss a new bill that would provide 12 weeks of paid family and medical leave for all federal employees. The bill would allow approximately 2.6 million workers to take time off for their own medical issues, or to care for a sick child, spouse or parent without sacrificing their salary.

Committee Chairwoman Rep. Carolyn B. Maloney (D-N.Y.), who introduced the bill, said the legislation was critical for workers who had to care for sick family members. Without this kind of support, widely offered in the private sector, she said, many federal employees are forced to choose between their families and their job.

The ranking Republican on the committee, Rep. James Comer (R-Ky.), came out strongly against the legislation, dismissing the proposed paid family and medical leave as an “enhanced work perk.”

Maloney immediately challenged on the idea of paid family leave as a “perk.”

“I doubt that the women in the great state of Kentucky think that having a child is a, quote, ‘perk,’” she said. “It is not a ‘perk.’”

Many Republicans have pushed back on the concept of paid leave and child care as “infrastructure,” as it’s often described by President Biden. While these policies are “important,” they say, they’re not foundational in the same way as trains, planes or roads. But to view paid leave as a “perk” is an outdated perspective that is “out of step with public opinion,” said Gayle Kaufman, a professor of sociology at Davidson College. Today, 67 percent of Americans think workers should receive paid medical and family leave from either the government or their employer.

That language “brings back thoughts of a workplace where employees are solely there to contribute to their workplace,” said Kaufman, who specializes in parental leave. “It’s like, ‘Go to work. Do your job. If you have something you have to deal with, you’re on your own.’”

There is now a greater expectation that an employer will see employees as “human beings,” Kaufman said, and support them through issues that might come up outside of work.

Maloney’s bill would build on a 2019 law that provided 12 weeks of paid parental leave to most federal employees. Though that was a major step in the right direction, Maloney said, there is still a “dire need” to do more to help federal employees balance work and family.

“I have federal employees call me asking when is the bill going to pass so [they] can have a child,” Maloney said during the hearing. “They can’t even afford to have a child.”

Comer sees the latest bill as unnecessary and “irresponsible,” he wrote in a statement to The Lily.

“We’ve already witnessed massive delays in the federal government’s service to veterans during the pandemic as a result of less work, and giving full-time pay for part-time work to all federal employees will undoubtedly impact the government’s service to Americans.”

The United States lags behind the rest of the industrialized world on paid family leave, the only high-income country without a national policy that mandates paid time off for parents, and one of only a handful without national paid family and medical leave. In Germany, Norway and many other European countries, parents are given 10 paid days off a year to care for sick children. Others, such as Spain and Sweden, offer a certain amount of paid time off “per episode.”

These kinds of benefits help keep women in the workforce, said Kaufman. Without them, some women will be forced to quit their jobs, or face termination when they’re unable to go to work. That’s especially true for low-income women and women of color, she said.

For almost 10 years, Democratic lawmakers have been trying to pass national paid leave legislation. Spearheaded by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) and Rep. Rosa L. DeLauro (D-Conn.), a version of the same bill has been introduced every two years since 2013, without success.

But that could be changing. Biden has embraced paid leave as a major part of his national agenda. The $1.8 trillion American Families Plan calls for 12 weeks of national paid leave, as well as national comprehensive paid family and medical leave.

Still, there is a long way to go before the bill becomes law. Some analysts and lawmakers are skeptical that the American Families Plan will pass, especially after it was separated from the American Jobs Plan, a $2 trillion package that is being considered first.

“What happened to the investment in paid family leave?” Rep. Katie Porter (D-Calif.) told CNBC after the American Families Plan was delayed to a subsequent phase of the infrastructure rollout. If child care is tackled after other infrastructure priorities, she said, she worries lawmakers will say, “Golly gee, there’s no money left to help make it possible for women to recover economically.”

By providing paid family and medical leave for federal employees, the country would be taking a important step, Maloney said in an interview, which could be followed by comprehensive leave policies at a national level. But Comer said his constituents wouldn’t want to give more of their tax dollars to “federal employees who already enjoy job security and a lavish set of benefits not afforded to most American workers.”

“Tax payers are sick and tired of giving more benefits and more perks to federal employees because they have to pay for those benefits and perks,” he said.

At the hearing, Maloney recounted her experience at work before she had her first child. When she asked about paid leave, she said, personnel at her company were confused. As a mother, she said, no one expected her to return to work.

“Calling it a ‘perk,’ he was making light of it, like it didn’t matter,’” Maloney said. “As we recover from the pandemic, I would say one thing we learned is that paid leave is not a perk.”

It’s a “lifeline,” she said.

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