Did you know that the United States is one of only three countries that does not mandate paid time off for new working parents? Let that sink in. One of only three countries internationally. The other two are Papua New Guinea and Suriname.
To be crystal clear, this is not one of three industrialized countries. Or one of three Western countries. Or one of three countries with any other criteria. This is one of three countries in the entire world. Meaning that even developing nations have better maternity leave programs than we do. Countries like Rwanda, Iraq, Haiti, and Bangladesh. Even the United Nations offers paid maternity and paternity leave.
The United States is the ONLY industrialized nation in the world without paid parental leave.
Take a look at this infographic for just a quick idea:
Shocking, isn’t it? Here in the States, pregnancy is considered a “disability.” Postpartum mothers are paid a whopping grand total of either 6 weeks (for a vaginal delivery) or 8 weeks (for a c-section) out of Short Term Disability funds collected through employee payroll deductions. Many, if not most, working mothers are then forced to return to their jobs as paid benefits have been exhausted. At 6 weeks or 8 weeks postpartum.
As my Canadian cousin says, it is barbaric that American women are forced to return to work so soon – at a point when they likely haven’t even completely physically healed from the trauma of childbirth.
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Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA)
Yes, the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA) of 1993 was a small step forward in that it began providing a total of 12 weeks job protection (6 or 8 of which could overlap with Short Term Disability pay). However, there is no additional compensation associated with the act and it also has firm restrictions that exclude approximately 40% of the American workforce (for example, it cannot be leveraged by employees of small companies or by those who have not hit a minimum threshold of hours of service with one company). Perhaps because of this, it hasn’t significantly increased leave times.
A few states – California, Hawaii, New Jersey, New York, and Rhode Island – have enacted their own laws to provide some additional compensation and protection, and fortunately for me I live in one of them.
California Family Rights Act (CFRA) and Paid Family Leave (PFL)
California, as an example, has enacted the California Family Rights Act (CFRA) which allows a working mother or father 12 weeks of unpaid job protection to care for a family member. While FMLA and CFRA run concurrently, the difference is that FMLA begins at the time of delivery, while CFRA bonding leave doesn’t begin until the mother is released from Short Term Disability – essentially extending job protection an additional 6 or 8 weeks.
California also offers Paid Family Leave (PFL), funded by employee California State Disability Insurance (SDI) contributions, which provides working mothers and fathers up to 55% of capped weekly earnings for up to 6 weeks.
Clear as mud?
What this all means is that, in California, a working mother is entitled to up to 18 to 20 weeks of total job protection (depending on type of delivery) under FMLA and CFRA. The first 6-8 weeks are fully paid by Short Term Disability, and then the next 6 weeks are paid at up to 55% of the capped earnings amount. Any additional job-protected time is unpaid. Much better than most states, but still not enough.
Other (Most) States
So then how does it work in other states that have not enacted additional legislation? The working mother is eligible for a total job protected period of 12 weeks after delivery under FMLA. She is paid for the first 6-8 weeks out of Short Term Disability. After that, she remains unpaid until returning to work.
And the working father? He is entitled to 12 weeks of FMLA job protection. Not a day of it is paid.
So do I think that paid parental leave is something that should be offered to every working American mother and father? You bet I do. And here are the reasons why.
Increased consumer spending and larger tax base.
Paid maternity leave results in increased consumer spending. Mothers on paid leave are more likely to spend, and the ultimate retention of those mothers in the workforce generates a larger tax base. The Institute for Women’s Policy Research concludes that a paid leave program could increase national GDP by as much as 5% simply by boosting female labor force participation. Yet research by Cornell has found that the American female labor force participation rate is decreasing – from 6th place internationally in 1990 to 17th place in 2010.
Paid maternity leave policies can help change that. Since Google implemented their new generous maternity leave policy, the rate at which mothers leave the company has been reduced by 50%. Public response to new similar programs offered by Facebook, Netflix, and Microsoft has also been overwhelmingly positive. The retention of women in the workforce is good for mothers, companies, and the economy.
Breast is best.
This is undisputed, and has become a major talking point (almost to a fault) amongst American mothers, doctors, and even politicians. Nobody denies the fact that a mother breastfeeding her child is providing the best nutrition and immunity available. Yet we force mothers back to work when they may not even have fully established a milk supply yet – I know that even my own paltry milk supply definitely took more than 6 weeks to establish.
Fun fact: on an international trip sans baby a couple of years ago, the airport TSA staff were fascinated with my breast pump – they had never seen one. So were my international family members, who had also never seen one. Why would they have? Mothers in other countries are largely able to remain home with their children until they have weaned.
Pumping at work is not easy, and is often looked down upon. Even with legislation providing certain protections to pumping mothers, it is still difficult to find appropriate areas to pump and managers who are fully supportive. More than once I found myself pumping in a storage closet or with the tacit disapproval of my managers when having to step out of an important meeting. No wonder most working mothers give up only a few months in.
Business financial burden concerns are exaggerated.
A popular argument against paid maternity leave programs is the potential cost to employers – not only to help fund the programs, but to account for the financial strain resulting from mothers or fathers on leave. Yet this simply doesn’t play out. Using the states with enhanced leave programs as case studies, the Center for Economic and Policy Research found that up to 99% of California employers indicated that the new leave law had a positive or no noticeable effect on productivity, turnover, employee morale, and profitability/performance. Even more compelling are the nearly 10% of California employers who actually cited a cost savings due to reduced employee turnover and reduced benefits costs.
These findings are not unique. A University of Virginia study concluded that mothers who took California paid family leave were more likely to be working a year later than those who did not. And a Rutgers study found a 40% decrease in incidence of receiving food stamps or public aid for New Jersey mothers who took paid leave.
Keep in mind that program costs don’t necessarily have to be shouldered by employers either. In Canada, for example, funding comes from the federal Employment Insurance program paid into by working Canadians.
Improved gender equality.
This may sound counter intuitive, as this is typically an argument used against paid family leave. But hear me out. Today, paid Short Term Disability is only offered to American mothers for the abysmal period of 6-8 weeks. With the exception of the five states that have implemented more attractive policies, fathers are unable to receive any pay upon taking a leave for the birth of a child.
So what does this mean? You guessed it: fewer fathers take any extended time off to bond with their new children. Subsequently increasing their hiring desirability when matched up against equally qualified women of childbearing age.
But imagine that both mothers AND fathers, as equal caretakers, were offered comparable leave programs – or essentially one leave program that either the mother, father, or both could leverage. No longer would only women be dinged by potential employers for the possibility that she would eventually take family leave – the risk would become the same for either parent, man or woman. Mens’ advantage over women at the time of hire would decrease as either gender could be expected to take a family bonding leave at some point.
Increased workplace retention.
Retaining talented employees is a win for both the organization and the employee. Without mandated paid family leave, many mothers are forced to choose between returning to work at 6 or 8 weeks postpartum, or quitting their jobs completely to stay home with their children during the critical first year. This was a decision I greatly struggled with for each child – even with the advantage of being able to extend my job-protected (but not fully paid) leave to 18 weeks by residing in the state of California.
Contrary to opposing arguments, the National Bureau of Economic Research suggests that mothers offered paid leave of up to one year are more likely to stay in their jobs as a result of not having to quit to obtain adequate time off. It makes sense. I think most mothers would feel much more ready to return to work at a point when their infants are older, more mature, and not so dependent on them.
For employers, a longer leave period makes sense as well. It is much easier to hire a temporary employee or to cross-train an existing employee to take over the work of the mother on leave for a period of 6-12 months than to simply rely on other employees to cover, in addition to their regular jobs, for 6-8 weeks. This also allows employers the opportunity to challenge and train other high performing employees, exposing them to rotational work in new areas and allowing for stronger succession planning.
Procreation is necessary for our society’s survival.
We’ve all heard the argument. The one that says if you’re choosing to be a mother, then any financial or other ramifications are your sole responsibility. But I beg to differ.
What if nobody decided to have children? Because we couldn’t afford it, or it was looked down upon, or for any other reason? Dramatic example, I know, but our society would cease to exist within one to two generations.
The point is – children are not simply an “option” chosen by selfish parents. They are necessary for our very survival; at a minimum, to take over the reigns for us as we age and to continue our country’s existence. Parents or not, we all benefit from the next generation.
Therefore, we all have a responsibility to ensure that our children are given the best start. Paid parental leave provides parents the opportunity to bond with and raise their children during an extremely critical and formative period of their young lives. It facilitates strong attachment and helps to set the foundation for the rest of their lives. I doubt anyone could argue that an often overstretched childcare provider can possibly provide better care during the first year than the child’s own parent. And that parent should be free to administer this care without the financial burden to the entire family that our current lack of paid paternal leave imposes.
We are one of only three countries in the entire world that doesn’t mandate paid maternity leave. We are the ONLY industrialized nation without it.
How can this be so when we tout ourselves as a nation that promotes family values? If the children are truly the future, why are working parents often forced to leave them with other family members (best case scenario) or practical strangers (worst case scenario) to act as primary caregivers 40-60 hours a week? How can it be that developing, impoverished, and war-torn nations have better leave policies than we do? Can we truly call ourselves the leaders of the free world if we can’t even supply the basics for our families?
The silver lining of all this is that the tides slowly appear to be changing. I’ve heard more discussion on this topic from both fellow American citizens and politicians in the last couple of years than ever before. Private companies are now taking matters into their own hands with the implementation of significantly improved parental leave programs, and others are taking notice. Competition for talent will continue to result in increased benefits even as the government lags behind in federal policy.
Yet it is still not enough and we shouldn’t accept that it is. Certainly the United States of America can pull itself out of the bottom international position for paid family leave. I am hopeful and optimistic, and hope that you are too. Mothers, fathers, and all citizens deserve it. Children depend on it.
And they are, after all, our future.