Making the Case for Paid Family Leave
The evidence for a national paid family leave policy is abundant, says JP Alumni Fellow Erika Rosa. Let’s follow the data.
The United States is the only wealthy nation in the world that does not endorse paid parental leave, and only about 24% of workers have access to it. Since 2016 I have had two children. In both of my pregnancies, I experienced firsthand the effects of being a new parent without access to paid leave.
After graduating from college as a single parent, I took my first job in the field as a rehabilitation specialist for my local mental health authority. I was five months pregnant with my second child upon accepting the position. Toward the end of my pregnancy, I was offered 12 weeks of unpaid leave although I did not formally qualify for FMLA (Family and Medical Leave Act) because I had not been employed with the agency for 12 consecutive months (one of those sticky eligibility requirements). Mind you, this agency touted its commitment to equity.
Needless to say, I was shocked upon beginning my maternity leave to receive a call from a supervisor with news that HR had rejected my request for unpaid leave while I had my child. I was informed that if I wanted to remain employed, I would have to accept the agency’s revised offer of only three weeks of unpaid leave. If you know anything about giving birth, you don’t exactly get to decide how things will go, and this new offer would have had me returning to work within 10 days of ejecting a human from inside my body.
This was unimaginable from my perspective and, I felt, from any reasonable person’s perspective. I had no choice but to resign. This unforeseen ramification of archaic leave policies left my now-husband and me in a difficult financial situation, to say the least. We had just purchased a home earlier that year. Mortgages are no joke, especially in today’s market, but that’s a different story.
Unnecessary Barriers to Economic Mobility
Since having my sons, I have been torn between returning to work and staying home to save money due to the high cost of childcare. Sadly, I’m not unique — too many parents face this struggle. During the Covid-19 crisis, millions of women left the labor force, in large part due to a need to take over caregiving responsibilities for their children. In today’s economy, a household run on one moderate income is not sustainable in the long term.
Some might say that parental leave in the U.S. is not an issue because we have the 1993 Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA). Although FMLA provides up to 12 weeks of leave, it is not paid and therefore offers little more than job security to working adults. Another flaw with FMLA is its stringent eligibility requirements. These requirements leave less than two-thirds of the American workforce eligible for this provision, with low-wage workers far less likely to qualify — I would know since I was one of them.
Imagine that you have to decide between what is best for you and your family’s future and providing basic needs, such as food and shelter.
Another argument against paid leave is the notion that offering it would result in individuals not returning to work or taking advantage of the provision. Studies show that in states where women have access to paid parental leave, they are 40% more likely to return to work after giving birth. Patagonia — an outdoor clothing company that has been paying women to take time off after giving birth for over a decade — offers 16 weeks of paid leave for birth mothers and 12 weeks of paid leave for other new parents. They have retained 100% of their female employees. JP also offers 12 weeks of paid parental leave for all new parents.
If you are not a parent, imagine that you have to decide between what is best for you and your family’s future and providing basic needs, such as food and shelter. Most working women must make this decision when they become new parents. The lack of provision for paid parental leave hurls women into a no-win situation that many are not able to overcome, despite our beliefs in the so-called fairness of meritocracy. It leaves working mothers to fend for themselves during one of the most tender and vulnerable times of their lives.
Research Supports a National Paid Family Leave Policy
The research on paid parental leave is not new. Consider the salient research on the topic, which supports the implementation of a national paid leave policy. The benefits of parental leave have far-reaching impacts across social and economic dimensions.
Healthwise, paid parental leave has been linked to improved mental health in mothers and has been associated with lower infant mortality rates, even when measuring responses several years later. Research also shows that paid parental leave can alleviate financial stress in the months following the birth of a child — allowing parents to shift their focus from earning income to bonding with their newborn. Socially, parental leave may have other benefits, including increasing gender equality by allowing fathers to participate more in the care of their children.
Implementing a national parental leave policy that is funded by the federal income tax would generate the revenue needed for such a policy. In the meantime, it is up to cities, counties, and employers to adopt these policies to set an example for the larger society to follow. In the state of Texas, Travis County and the city of Houston have taken steps to make this a reality for families. In Houston, city employees will now have access to 12 paid weeks of leave following the birth or adoption of a child. The law also provides for pre- and post-natal doctors’ appointments. If this type of policy can be enacted in smaller entities, then there must be a way to scale it to create a national policy.
What Advocates Can Do
Using the research that has been conducted over the years to build a case that appeals to policymakers is a critical step in turning this idea into reality — a case that advocates for all aspects of society, from health and wellness to economic stability to the social milieu. Here are a couple of ways to do that:
- Write to your elected officials to voice your agreement with a paid leave policy for all Americans. An avenue for this type of action can be found at the Paid Leave for All website.
- Check out A Better Balance, a nonprofit advocacy organization for workers to be able to care for themselves without forfeiting their economic security.
Parenting is hard enough in this individualistic society that tells us we have to do it by ourselves. Raising children cannot be done without help, and it certainly cannot be done with needless barriers to economic stability.