With my second baby due in just over three months, I have begun to think about my upcoming maternity leave. The idea of having dedicated time to care for and bond with my new baby seemed idyllic before I knew anything about it. Although I consider myself an informed individual, I’ll admit I was shocked to learn that, although I have dedicated most of my adult life to working for the federal government of (arguably) the world’s most powerful, innovative, and free-spending nation, I would not receive a single day of paid leave after the birth of my child.
True, the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) requires American employers with at least 50 employees to provide up to twelve weeks of job-protected leave for the birth/adoption of a child or other serious medical condition of an immediate family member. But this leave is 100% unpaid, so it is not a realistic option for many families (and it is not even available to part-time workers). Instead, new parents are often limited to the amount of paid sick or vacation leave they are able to accrue in advance of their child’s arrival.
Putting aside the implications it has for my own family and our immediate future, the lack of paid parental leave in America is downright embarrassing. A recent report from the UN’s International Labor Organization found that 185 countries provide paid maternity leave (the U.S. being one of 3 that does not), and that 78 also provide paid paternity leave. The fact that, despite being a public servant in the world’s largest economy, I receive no paid time off following childbirth continues to shock my in-laws (in England, which provides 90% of a mother’s salary for 39 weeks, and South Africa, which – despite a need to curb fertility rates and paltry public finances – provides up to 17 weeks of untaxed pay) and friends around the world. It angers me that the American government (and I blame both political parties equally) is so supportive of business but refuses to extend even modest support to nearly half of the American workforce.
So when a Facebook friend quoted an interview she’d just watched that articulately shamed the United States for being the only country in the world (besides Oman and Papau New Guinea) that does not guarantee any paid maternity leave and made a business case for doing so, I immediately went to check it out. “When I hear from businesses that we can’t afford to do paid leave, my response is we can’t afford not to do paid leave,” intoned U.S. Secretary of Labor Tom Perez. “When women succeed, the world succeeds,” he went on, “we’re losing sight of that here in the USA.”
The irony was overwhelming – I am stressing about how to afford a few weeks with no income and here is my boss saying it is a travesty that America is “making women choose between the family they love and the job that they need.” I’m pretty sure Secretary Perez could launch a pilot program to test out how providing a few weeks of paid family leave to Department of Labor employees would impact his (relatively) small workforce, but instead, just three weeks ago the Secretary gave half a million dollars to help three states and D.C. conduct feasibility studies on potential paid leave policies. There are likely to be more such programs announced in the coming months, as the President’s FY 2015 budget includes a $5 million “State Paid Leave Fund” for Secretary Perez to provide competitive grants to help states cover the start-up costs of launching paid-leave programs. Don’t get me wrong, I am glad the Obama Administration, and my own agency, are at least talking about this issue, but slick videos and feasibility studies aren’t going to do me any good.
At least I am not alone, and I am still better off than most Americans. On September 26, 2014, the Bureau of Labor Statistics released new data finding that just 12% of private sector employees in the U.S. have access to paid family leave. In another ironic twist, one of the best places for family leave in the U.S. is my home state of California, where I lived most of my life until a year before I first got pregnant. California’s paid family leave law has been in effect for more than a decade, and provides six weeks of leave at 55% of usual pay for new parents (mothers and fathers). More recently, three other states have followed California’s lead – New Jersey, Rhode Island, and Washington – but with lower weekly compensation ceilings.
A new study commissioned by the U.S. Department of Labor found that California’s parental leave law has mostly benefited uneducated, unmarried, minority mothers, producing long-term benefits for their children. It has also substantially increased rates of breastfeeding and the amount of time new mothers spent with their babies. Perhaps the most important finding is that about 90% of California employers report only positive impacts from the California parental leave law, and small businesses have even fewer complaints about the policy than large companies.
So what’s the hold up? There is strong bipartisan support for paid family leave, at least in theory. An exit poll following the 2012 election found that 86% of Americans were in favor of new laws ensuring paid sick leave and family leave insurance, including 96% of Democrats and 73% of Republicans. Yet there’s been no congressional action on the Family and Medical Insurance Leave Act, introduced by Representative Rose DeLauro of Connecticut last December, which proposes 12 paid weeks off for new parents and caregivers. The bill has 100 Democratic co-sponsors, but no Republicans have gotten on board. [Although there is virtually no chance of this legislation ever making it to the floor, I am all in favor of writing your congressperson to voice your support; you can do so here.]
Of course, paid maternity leave costs money and many argue that mandating such leave would actually harm women in the workforce by discouraging employers from hiring them in the first place. Studies have found that providing paid parental leave beyond 20 weeks actually discourages women from returning to the workforce. And of course, there are social and professional implications to taking time off after the birth or adoption of a child, particularly for fathers. As an excellent article in The Atlantic explains, while maternity leave has a strong medical basis, paternity leave is motivated primarily by egalitarian and economic concerns and remains subject to strong (but eroding) social stigma in the U.S.
I sincerely hope that paid maternity and paternity leave become the norm in the U.S. in my lifetime, but I do not expect that to happen anytime soon. I am planning to take only six weeks off following the birth of my second child, but am hoping to use a mix of FMLA unpaid leave and telework to ease my return to the labor force while continuing to make my family my priority. I’ll let you know how it goes!