May 9, 2013
Every industrialized nation in the world—except the United States—guarantees paid leave for new mothers.
Janet Walsh, deputy director Women’s Rights division

Diana T. worked full-time for a large retail store in the US when she became pregnant. Her manager was unhappy about her pregnancy and about Diana’s six-week unpaid maternity leave. Her employer refused to pay her accrued sick time during leave. Diana’s baby was born with asthma, and doctors suspected she had cystic fibrosis. Diana had severe post-partum depression. 

Diana’s employer threatened to terminate her when she asked for time off for doctor visits. She barely managed to keep up with health visits for her infant daughter, and never got treatment for depression. Diana had to depend on family to help her buy food, diapers, and other basics during the time she was off work without pay.

Diana is one of millions of US workers with no paid family leave. The Family and Medical Leave Act grants workers unpaid job-protected leave for up to three months to care for parents, children and spouses with serious illnesses, to bond with new children, and to manage their own serious health conditions. But this applies only to enterprises with 50 or more employees, and eligibility requirements exclude many workers. Indeed, more than 40 percent of the American workforce has no protection under this law. Only about 12 percent of the workforce has access to paid family leave.

Public debate on US work-family policies ignited this year, triggered in part by Professor Anne-Marie Slaughter’s article in The Atlantic, “Why Women Still Can’t Have it All,” and Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg’s book, “Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead.” Both Slaughter and Sandberg call for paid family leave, among other steps to reform the US work-family culture. Critics claim that Slaughter and Sandberg are out of touch with low-income women. But when it comes to paid family leave, reforms they call for would make a profound difference for low-income workers. 

Just California and New Jersey guarantee six weeks of paid family leave under law—financed entirely by minimal worker payroll contributions (in New Jersey, workers will pay a maximum of $30.90 for 2013). A handful of other states guarantee temporary disability insurance to birth mothers. For all other workers, it’s up their employers whether they offer paid family leave.

I interviewed Diana and more than 60 other parents in 17 states about US work-family policies for a 2011 Human Rights Watch report. Most of the parents had no paid family leave, and were lucky if they could string together sick pay or other leave to deal with major life events or catastrophes. Parents recounted how short and unpaid leave after childbirth or adoption contributed to delaying immunizations and health visits for babies, postpartum depression, and other health problems. During unpaid leave, many went into debt, and some resorted to welfare and bankruptcy.

 Many parents I interviewed said they were forced to choose between a paycheck and their family’s wellbeing. This was especially true for low-income workers, like Diana.  US Bureau of Labor Statistics data shows that workers in the highest 25 percent of average wages are nearly four times more likely to have paid family leave than workers in the lowest 25 percent. Those in the highest 10 percent of wages are five times more likely to have paid family leave than workers in the lowest 10 percent.

 The US lags far behind other countries when it comes to policies on reconciling work and family obligations. Every industrialized nation in the world—except the United States—guarantees paid leave for new mothers, and 81 countries do for new fathers, generally financed by social insurance systems. Countries that provide better protections for working families reap gains in economic competitiveness and productivity. Paid leave research in many countries has shown that such policies increase breastfeeding, immunizations, and health visits for babies; reduce infant mortality and postpartum depression; raise productivity and employee morale; and decrease employee turnover costs. Paid leave can help avert family poverty spells, which often coincide with the birth of a baby.

 The California and New Jersey public paid leave insurance programs are working well for businesses and workers.  Most businesses responding to a 2011 survey on California’s program said it had either a positive effect or no noticeable effect on productivity, profitability, turnover, and employee morale. These programs do need to work harder to raise awareness among workers. The California survey, for example, found that low-wage workers, Latinos, and immigrants were the least aware of the program. But those who enrolled described positive results: breastfeeding, for example, doubled in duration for those who used the California program. 

As the US marks Mother’s Day on May 12, I think of Diana and millions of other US mothers—and fathers—who just want to be good workers and good parents. It’s time for US policies to offer some basic support to help them achieve both, including paid family leave under law.