In 2015, with 15 years in the federal government, I found myself expecting my first child.
I had tons of questions for my human resources shop and they had almost zero answers.
Why? Not malice, for sure. My peers were generally senior-level employees, parents of teenagers and beyond. It took me months to find the resources I needed to ensure I was prepared professionally (as best I could be) for the transition to parenthood.
Congress passed the Federal Employee Paid Leave Act, which grants most feds 12 weeks of paid leave for birth or adoption starting this October. However, for expectant moms searching for info, the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) website offers little help. OPM has yet to offer implementation guidance to agencies and departments.
And if you give birth before October, you will have the same options I did – using all your annual and sick leave, requesting advanced leave to the extent possible, and, if you have a qualifying associated medical condition, you may request access to the Voluntary Leave Transfer Program. Where do you even start?
DO: Read the somewhat handy OPM guide.
It’s 72 pages long and still won’t answer all your questions. The bulk of the document consists of example scenarios, complete with mock calendar and leave schedules. I found this document confusing, and it didn’t answer all of my questions. Your next step is to contact your agency’s human resources office to better understand the policies of your organization.
Each one is different. I found that even within my own organization, answers to my questions differed depending on who I spoke to on a given day. The HR team wasn’t devious or deceptive, they simply didn’t have the information they needed to answer my questions. I suspect you will experience something similar. Be persistent. Your best resource will be the women around you who had babies in the last couple of years and can share their best practices and lessons learned. Find them. Buy them coffee.
Most of the folks in my supervisory structure a) had never supervised any expecting mothers and didn’t know the policies and b) just assumed I was guaranteed paid maternity leave. These were experienced, knowledgeable managers with many years supervising people. They just didn’t have the kind of experience I needed at my most vulnerable point. So, back to that guide.
You’ll notice the OPM handbook links to other webpages on the OPM site, such as a fact sheet for advanced sick leave. This site mentions that you must submit a memo to request advanced sick leave, but does not give you a template or example.
DO: Ask for an actual memo or form used in your agency to request approval for parental leave (of course, with the personal information redacted).
If it’s been approved in the past (long-term annual or sick leave), don’t reinvent the wheel with a new memo format.
DO: Make sure multiple colleagues have hard copies of all of your paperwork.
You never know when you’re going to be out of the office for an appointment when your admin shop has a question.
My administrative offices couldn’t advise me on how to fill out the paperwork, which required exact dates. This means you can’t submit it ahead of the birth unless you have a scheduled C-section and know for sure the dates you’ll be delivering the baby. So leaving copies with a trusted HR professional or coworker is important.
DO: Investigate opportunities for telework.
COVID-19 forced many feds to work from home, but as employees return to the office, expectant employees need to have a plan in place. If you don’t already have a telework agreement, you should ask your HR experts how to get started and work with your supervisor on establishing a workload that could be accomplished remotely. You never know when you might end up on bed rest. You may be able to ease back into your job by working partial days upon your return after the birth of your baby. If you are an intelligence professional or in another career field where you work exclusively with classified material, this may be a non-starter, but get creative. If there are other parts of your organization that work on unclassified materials, you might be able to support them. Start this discussion early.
You can find more info about telework here: telework.gov. Most organizations made great strides in the last three months in their telework programs out of necessity and can likely accommodate your request.
DO: Find out about parking options.
Investigate what parking options exist for you at your agency or department. Even if you normally utilize mass transit to get to work, you may find later in your pregnancy this doesn’t work for you for a variety of reasons. Generally, you’ll have to get your doctor to fill out paperwork indicating the medical necessity of parking access or closer parking. Get an example of one of these memos (with personally identifiable information redacted, of course) from your parking office or HR shop so that if the need arises, you know exactly what to do and you can submit a request quickly.
DO: Ask where the nursing mothers’ rooms are in your location.
I never noticed these existed before I needed one, and you probably haven’t seen them either. OPM has a guide on establishing them and here’s what it says:
Section 4207 of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (ACA) revises the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) by requiring employers to provide nursing mothers with 1) reasonable break time to express milk for one year after her child’s birth each time such employee has a need to express breast milk; and 2) a private space, other than a bathroom, that is shielded from view and free from intrusion of others, to express breast milk.
Here’s a link to the guide, which also discusses reasonable break time to do the pumping:
Again, talk to your supervisor early on this so no one will be surprised that you’re taking time out of the workday to pump.
Get access to these rooms through the procedures your agency established and make sure you have enough pump parts to have one set with you, one in the dishwasher and one ready for the next day. Buy as many as you can afford. You won’t regret it.
DO: Investigate childcare options early.
Where I live, high-quality childcare costs a ton of money, and you have to get on waitlists immediately in urban areas. By immediately, I don’t mean right after the baby is born. I mean immediately after you have a notional due date from your doctor. Many childcare providers require you to pay a fee to get on their waitlists. Before you can pay that fee, you’re required to take an in-person tour (generally only offered at 11 a.m. on Tuesdays once a month or some other extremely inconvenient time). Get educated and start your research as soon as possible.
Also, inquire about child development centers your agency or department sponsor. Waitlists for these are very long, so you’ll want to get on them as early as possible. Your employer might also participate in a program to subsidize childcare. Ask about this through your HR office and ask any potential daycare providers if they are on an approved list to participate in this program.
Love Rutledge hosts the FedUpward Podcast (FedUpward.com), a show for feds to find tips and strategies to navigate everyday problems. She has 20 years of government service, a master’s in public administration from The George Washington University and a master’s of science in defense resource management from The Eisenhower School at the National Defense University. She’s also a wife, and mother of two preschoolers. Opinions expressed are hers and not those of the government.