After four years in the Trump administration, Vanessa Ambrosini was looking forward to three months of parental leave when she and her husband welcomed a baby a week before Christmas. The Commerce Department’s human resources office had given her approval for it. But then she was surprised to find out the benefit was no longer available because of the change in administration.
“I got completely screwed,” she said in an interview. “There were no caveats in that language saying anything about if the administration turns, you get nothing and of course, that happened and so I got nothing.”
Ambrosini is among a number of ex-Trump political officials who lost their parental leave when Joe Biden was sworn into office. It’s a byproduct of the field they’re in: Their boss (the president) may have been the one let go, but his departure has meant that they, too, lose their jobs and benefits. Still, they argue that the Biden administration should have honored their leave by keeping them on payroll until the end of it — a request that, emails reviewed by POLITICO show, the Biden transition did not grant.
The Biden White House declined to speak about the issue on record. Instead, an official noted anonymously that political appointees “do not enjoy the promise of federal employment past the end of the administration in which they choose to serve.” The official blamed the fact that the Trump administration dragged its heels on a quick and orderly transition as a reason why some on his team were caught off guard by the benefits ending.
“We understand that a few Trump appointees, including a handful currently on parental leave, submitted last minute requests to remain on government payroll,” the official said. “Because these requests were received so close to Inauguration Day… there was no way to implement an exception to the rule in a way that is fair to all outgoing appointees, including many who resigned as expected without making requests for extraordinary benefits.”
The official added that “appointees have been advised that they have options including COBRA and the Affordable Care Act.”
For Ambrosini and others, those options were not enough to navigate an already difficult situation. Former Trump officials face an uphill climb finding a job in a Washington D.C., where the federal government is run by Democrats. Job searching when you’re at home taking care of an infant is nearly impossible.
“With a newborn baby, it’s not like I can just jump on the job market and be like ‘hey, I’m ready to work,’” Ambrosini said. “It’s hard. No one’s going to be willing to hire me right this second because I’m still home with the baby, so it’s tough.”
Ambrosini, who was the deputy communications director at the Commerce Department and a former Trump White House official, said she had gotten approval to take parental leave from early January to late March. But she was informed a day before her baby was due on Dec. 17 that her leave would be ending Jan. 20, when the inauguration was taking place. After some deliberation, she decided to use her sick leave to cover her time off during the first three weeks of January before the inauguration.
A pair of married former Trump Homeland Security officials said they had a similar experience. They provided POLITICO with emails showing an agency official telling them that, as political appointees, their parental leave benefits would be treated the same as those for career employees. Their baby was born on Dec. 18. Late at night on Jan. 5, the father got an email from the HR office saying that they had been wrong and that their benefit would end on Jan. 20.
“It’s one thing if you have a household, if you have one family member who works for the government,” he said. “But we were both employed by the government so we’re losing both of our opportunities for health care and both our incomes, so it’s pretty scary to have a premature baby at home and not knowing if you’re going to have an income or health insurance.”
The former DHS official and his wife wrote a letter on Jan. 13 to the Biden DHS agency review team pleading to get the full benefit. “[T]he remaining 9-10 weeks afforded to federal employees is critical to our family and livelihoods as we work to raise a strong, healthy boy under unique and unforeseen complications to our birth plan,” they wrote.
But the DHS’ Presidential Transition Office told the couple in an email on Jan. 18 that the benefits would not be rolled over into the next administration. “This is not what you were hoping to hear but I think you also knew that this was the most likely outcome,” the email read. “I am sorry to be the bearer of this news and I am sorry I don’t have other news.”
The couple declined to go on the record for fear of the political fallout if they were named publicly and how it could negatively affect future employment opportunities.
It was only in December 2019 that Congress passed the Federal Employees Paid Leave Act, a law championed by Ivanka Trump, which gave federal government employees up to 12 weeks paid time off for the birth of a new child. The law, which took effect last October, required employees to agree to work at least another twelve weeks after taking the benefit, though there is a question about whether that requirement can be waived.
Either way, it was a major advancement on the status quo. Previously, federal employees were not given any paid time off and often would have to use unused vacation and sick days following the birth of a child or simply forgo pay.
Still, experts on parental leave policy say that the cases of these Trump officials shows the holes that still exist in the social safety net. As political appointees, they should have been aware that all benefits could end on Jan. 20 as the administration they served potentially came to a close. The experts also said that the Biden administration is under no legal obligation to grant Trump officials their leave.
But new administrations don’t immediately push out all political appointees from the prior one. And some experts said it would have set a good precedent for the Biden team to accommodate those individuals on parental leave as a means of reinforcing the importance of the policy.
“Paid parental leave is really really important for maternal health, for child wellbeing, for family connectivity, and I can’t imagine being in that new parents’ shoes and not having the finances,” said Adrienne Schweer, a fellow at the Bipartisan Policy Center who leads its Paid Family Leave Task Force. “Extending it to a couple people for a few months could be a good thing. There is precedent for unique circumstances, and I would love to see a good example set of ensuring that as many people as possible can have paid parental leave.”
As with virtually all employment, when a job ends so too do most of the benefits (though ex-Trump officials have been kept on government health insurance for the usual 31-day grace period). And, with Biden taking office, Trump officials asking for their parental leave to be respected in full were asking for, what in effect is, a special accommodation. The Biden administration would have needed to keep these individuals — all political appointees — in the federal government, but not working, until their parental leave ended.
Biden has long been a champion of parental leave benefits. After the 2019 law passed, he tweeted: “It’s about time that federal workers get paid parental leave. It is long past time that every American has 12 weeks of paid leave to address their own health needs or care for any of their loved ones.”
Trump, by contrast, was a somewhat unorthodox adopter of the cause. Republicans have long opposed federal requirements around such benefits and even as they began embracing reform it was through decidedly conservative lenses. One prominent GOP proposal called for people to be able to draw from their Social Security to pay for parental leave.
Trump officials who were given parental leave benefits argued that since it became law, it was now an entitlement — one that needed to be respected regardless of whether the presidency changed hands.
One former senior Trump official said he coordinated with his HR team at his agency and was told that the requirement he perform 12 weeks of work after their parental leave ended was waivable because of the extenuating circumstances of a new administration. He also reached out to the Office of Personnel Management and was told to date his resignation letter the last day of his paternity leave.
His wife had a baby girl in early December. He took three weeks of paternity leave before having to go back to work to deal with the fallout of the Jan. 6 Capitol Hill riot. He says he lost out on nine weeks of leave, which is equivalent to between $20,000 and $30,000.
“This isn’t an entitlement that I asked for but I feel like after four years, it was earned,” he said.
When some of the Trump political appointees found out that their full leave would not be granted, they elevated the issue to the Biden transition team. But after initially believing that the incoming administration would keep those on leave effectively employed, they soon were told otherwise. The former senior Trump official said he is now regretting his decision to stay until the end of the administration.
“I could have left earlier but I didn’t because I was told ‘hey you’ve got paternity leave coming up,’ and if I had known that you’re not going to get to use your paternity leave and you’re actually gonna just work your ass off when you have a new baby and then get fired, I probably would have made a different decision,” he said.
The former official declined to go on the record for fear that it would affect his prospects of landing a job with a salary to support a family of five.
“It makes you look like you’re desperate for work and a story about me wanting to get money is not going to work well when I’m negotiating with people I’m talking to,” he said. “I’m trying to convince everybody that I’m in a perfectly good situation.”