Some military women miss out on maternity leave. A lawmaker’s bill aims to end that.
By BRYAN LOWRY | McClatchy Washington Bureau | Published: June 12, 2019
WASHINGTON — The same week in December that Briell Zweygardt is due to give birth to her first child she’s also scheduled to report to McConnell Air Force Base in Wichita, Kan., for drills.
Zweygardt, 25, is a second lieutenant in the Kansas Air National Guard and like other women in the National Guard or military reserves she’ll face a tough choice when her child is born. If she takes time off from her monthly guard duties to care for her child, she’ll lose out on pay and points toward her retirement.
“I have actually seen women bring their newborns to drill because they didn’t want to miss,” said Zweygardt, who lives in Wamego.
In 2016, the U.S. Department of Defense enacted a 12-week maternity leave policy to cover active duty personnel, but the policy did not cover women in the National Guard or military reserves. They can still be penalized for taking time off to care for their newborn children.
Sen. Jerry Moran, R-Kan., has introduced legislation that will close this loophole and guarantee 12 weeks of paid maternity leave for guardswomen and reservists.
Roughly 150,000 women nationally serve in either the guard or reserves, according to Moran. That includes 661 women in the Kansas Army National Guard.
The Mothers of Military Service Leave Act — or MOMS Leave Act — would ensure that these servicewomen don’t lose out on credits toward their retirement for taking maternity leave.
“Women who serve our country should not be inadvertently penalized for having a child, nor should they be expected to return to drill duties in the weeks following childbirth,” Moran said last month when he announced the bill.
In an interview, Moran said the issue was first brought to his attention by an Army fellow working in his office.
“I can’t figure out any reason that distinction makes any sense. If it’s the right thing to do for active duty military, it’s the right thing to do for the guard and reserves,” Moran said in a phone call Tuesday. “In an all volunteer military, it matters what the benefits are.”
Moran said servicewomen should not have to worry about paying their bills when they’re getting ready to have a baby.
Zweygardt said Moran’s bill would be life-changing for her and other expectant mothers in the National Guard.
“It would just be really important for me financially. We really depend on my drill income,” she said. “This is going to give me the opportunity to really bond with my child.”
The Military Officers Association of America released a statement backing Moran’s bill, saying that “having a baby and juggling drilling responsibilities is cumbersome and not appreciative of the challenges of motherhood.”
Lory Manning, a retired Navy captain and spokeswoman for the Service Women’s Action Network, said that pregnant women have been serving in the military for decades, but prior to the 2016 policy change, each branch of the military handled maternity differently.
The military has sought to standardize how it treats maternity leave in recent years, but the National Guard has been left out of that change.
“The guard is always tricky because it’s got two bosses. There’s the federal component and then the governors,” Manning said.
Manning also said that parental leave shouldn’t be thought of as just an issue for female soldiers. It’s an issue that affects fathers in uniform as well, she said.
Earlier this year, the Army broadened its parental leave policy to increase time off for secondary caregivers and to allow parents of either gender to be considered a child’s primary caregiver.
Moran’s bill deals exclusively with female members of the National Guard and reserves, but he said it opens the door to conversations about paternity leave as well.
Capt. Lauren Orr, a member of the Kansas Army National Guard, said that guardswomen who take time off after having birth risk that they won’t have enough credits at the end of the year to make that year count toward their term of service.
Orr, 28, is six years into an eight-year commitment to the guard and expecting her second child in July. Both she and her husband were serving in the guard two years ago when they had their son and Orr took time off to care for him.
“But we were not paid for that. We just sort of took the hit on that and moved forward with it,” said Orr, who lives in Gardner and serves in Topeka.
Orr praised Moran’s effort to ensure reservists and Guardsmen have the same maternity benefits as active duty soldiers.
“I think it would be a really great step forward,” she said. “The focus right now in the National Guard is retention … and this would be one step in the right direction, making it possible for women who serve to continue serving. I think it’s a basic step toward fairness because this is offered toward active duty personnel.”