The Metric System. Measuring degrees in Celsius. Paid family leave. What do all of these things have in common? Almost every country practices them except the United States. I want to focus on the last item—paid maternity and paternity leave.
I recently read an article about a woman named Tara who was about to have a baby, worked full-time, and had a toddler at home. Her husband suffered from an autoimmune disorder and could not work, making Tara the breadwinner of the family. But, her employer required that she return to work full-time 20 days after giving birth and did not pay her for her time off.[i] Eighty-eight percent of women and men across the United States face the same problem as Tara.[ii] These families have to face financial issues just so that they can bond and take care of their newborn.
How does the United States compare to the rest of the world? This map from the Economic Opportunity Institute outlines paid leave for mothers across the world, which is also quite similar for fathers[iii]:
So what makes the United States ever so unique (besides Papua New Guinea and Liberia)? The National Public Radio outlines a variety of reasons as to why this happens: business lobbying, a diminished American labor movement, and the American love of individualism.[iv] Whatever the reason, this remains a heated topic in American politics. Nevertheless, many states, such as California and New Jersey, have enacted paid leave.[v] Some companies in the U.S. have also instigated this policy, but we cannot all work for Netflix or Amazon.
Let’s go back to Tara’s story. The Family and Medical Leave Act (2012) requires companies with more than 50 employees to give their workers a certain, elongated unpaid leave for family and medical reasons.[vi] But, Tara worked for a small company, so she only got 20 days to bond with her brand new baby and then had to return to work.[vii] This brings up another issue: often, the people who need paid leave the most either do not have a low status in their company or work for companies who do not meet FMLA’s standards. Think of the corporate cashier who just had a baby and is the breadwinner of the family. While his or her counterpart in administration may be able to afford to take unpaid leave, the cashier probably does not have the same luxury.
What are the benefits of paid leave? First, paid leave provides many health and development benefits. Having any type of leave (paid or not) is critical for child-parent bonding. If the parent does not have to worry about money for a significant amount of time, this bonding can become more relaxing. Larisa Casillas, a working mom in the Bay Area of California, said that “the extra time was essential for bonding with her son, meeting other mothers and staving off postpartum depression.” Additionally, she said “Honestly, without that income support, I wouldn’t have made it”.[viii] The same goes for fathers. We often talk so much about paid maternity leave, but fathers also need this critical time to bond with their new child. According to a 2011 study, paid parental leave also can reduce infant mortality by up to 10 percent. Additionally, a similar study found that paid leave can increase the rate and duration of breast-feeding, which can then lead to significant health benefits for both mother and child. For mothers, women who took paid leave for more than 12 weeks had a smaller chance of becoming depressed.[ix] These health benefits for parents and children goes on and on.[x]
Now for the economic benefits. In his 2015 State of the Union address, President Obama said that “paid leave could help increase the percentage of women in the work force and help middle-class families earn stable incomes”.[xi] Choosing between working and having a family is not a decision that anyone should have to face. Having the certainty of paid income during post-child bearing weeks can better guarantee of some women’s participation in the workforce. Plus, women who have taken leave return to work more productive. Specifically, a Rutgers study found that women who have taken leave worked 15-20 percent more hours during the second year of their child’s life than those who did not have leave.[xii] Additionally, economists have found that people with access to paid leave take more time off, especially low-income workers who would have otherwise never taken time off. Companies also do not lose anything when instituting these policies, as seen through recent policy shifts in California and New Jersey.[xiii]
Push-back may come primary from those who think companies simply cannot afford to pay their employees when they do not work. But this is simply not true. Looking at the U.S. states and companies who do have paid leave, we do not see economic or productivity collapse. In California and New Jersey, companies finance paid leave through its taxes of existing insurance programs. A study among companies in California showed that 89-99 percent of employers said paid leave had no negative effect on productivity, profitability, turnover, and morale. [xiv] So maybe paid leave does not add to a company’s profits. But, is that really a reason to prevent this policy? The benefits to families, parents, and babies should clearly outweigh maintaining the status quo in companies.
What can we do about this issue? Obviously, we can support the businesses who offer paid family leave. We can also encourage our political leaders to institute and research these policies. In addition, we can make sure people understand that the benefits of these policies really do outweigh the negatives. By doing this, people will hopefully have a better understanding of the issue and thus more be likely to support these policies to assist children and working parents.
[i] Shortall, Jessica. 2016. “Life in the Only Industrialized Country Without Paid Maternity Leave.” The Atlantic, March 3. http://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2016/03/no-paid-maternity-leave/470889/
[ii] Gault, Barbara, Heidi Hartmann, Ariane Hegewisch, Jessica Milli, and Lindsey Reichlin. 2014. “Paid Parental Leave in the United States: What the Data Tell Us about Access, Usage, and Economic and Health Benefits.” Institute for Women’s Policy Research, January. http://www.iwpr.org/publications/pubs/paid-parental-leave-in-the-united-states-what-the-data-tell-us-about-access-usage-and-economic-and-health-benefits
[iii] Stone, Alex. 2011. “Sticking it to the Mom: United States Now Just One of the Few with No Paid Leave for New Moms.” Economic Opportunity Institute, February 24. http://www.eoionline.org/blog/sticking-it-to-the-mom-united-states-now-just-one-of-the-few-with-no-paid-leave-for-new-moms/
[iv] Kurtzleben, Danielle. 2015. “Lots of Other Countries Mandate Paid Leave. Why Not the US?” NPR, July 15. http://www.npr.org/sections/itsallpolitics/2015/07/15/422957640/lots-of-other-countries-mandate-paid-leave-why-not-the-us
[v] Miller, Claire Cain. 2015. “The Economic Benefits of Paid Parental Leave.” New York Times, January 30. http://www.nytimes.com/2015/02/01/upshot/the-economic-benefits-of-paid-parental-leave.html#
[vi] U.S. Department of Labor. 2012. “Fact Sheet #28: The Family and Medical Leave Act.” Wage and Hour Division. http://www.dol.gov/whd/regs/compliance/whdfs28.pdf
[vii] Shortall, Jessica. 2016. “Life in the Only Industrialized Country Without Paid Maternity Leave.” The Atlantic, March 3. http://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2016/03/no-paid-maternity-leave/470889/
[viii] Miller, Claire Cain. 2015. “The Economic Benefits of Paid Parental Leave.” New York Times, January 30. http://www.nytimes.com/2015/02/01/upshot/the-economic-benefits-of-paid-parental-leave.html#
[ix] Wallace, Kelly and Jen Christensen. 2015. “The Benefits of Paid Leave for Children are Real, Majority of Research Says.” CNN, October 29. http://www.cnn.com/2015/10/29/health/paid-leave-benefits-to-children-research/
[x] For more information, see above citation from CNN.
[xi] Office of the Press Secretary. 2015. “Remarks by the President in State of the Union Address| January 20, 2015.” The White House, January 20. https://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2015/01/20/remarks-president-state-union-address-january-20-2015
[xii] Rutgers. 2012. “Rutgers Study Finds Paid Family Leave Leads to Positive Economic Outcomes.” January 19. http://news.rutgers.edu/news-releases/2012/01/rutgers-study-finds-20120118#.Vwb6MqQrKhc
[xiii] Miller, Claire Cain. 2015. “The Economic Benefits of Paid Parental Leave.” New York Times, January 30. http://www.nytimes.com/2015/02/01/upshot/the-economic-benefits-of-paid-parental-leave.html#
[xiv] Miller, Claire Cain. 2015. “The Economic Benefits of Paid Parental Leave.” New York Times, January 30. http://www.nytimes.com/2015/02/01/upshot/the-economic-benefits-of-paid-parental-leave.html#