By Susan Buttenwieser
The United States is one of only three countries in the world without a paid maternity leave law. The other two? Papua New Guinea and Oman. Workers in many other countries can also count on receiving paid paternity leave, elder care benefits and generous paid sick leave.
Meanwhile, the only federal legislation that American workers have is the 1993 Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), which allows employees to take up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave to look after a newborn or a sick relative without losing their job. The law applies only to companies with 50 or more employees, and then if an employee has worked for a certain amount of time.
Although the FMLA provides important job protections, many workers simply can’t afford to utilize it, leaving parents and caregivers with stark choices. According to the National Partnership for Women & Families, nearly half of workers who were eligible for leave but didn’t take it, cited lack of pay as the reason. Six in ten workers who took partially paid or unpaid leave reported difficulty making ends meet; half of these workers were forced to cut their leaves short due to financial constraints.
However, the tide may be starting to turn. Three states now guarantee paid family and medical leave—California, New Jersey and Rhode Island, and a similar law is set to go into effect in Washington State, possibly later this year. Additionally, studies of these programs have shown that they have been beneficial not only to employees, but to their workplaces as well. Various pieces of legislation are either being passed or introduced in cities and states across the country as well as on the federal level, with the Family And Medical Insurance Leave (FAMILY) Act being reintroduced in March.
Rachel Lyons, senior government affairs manager at the National Partnership for Women & Families, shared her thoughts on this important issue.
Q: There seems to be momentum around paid family leave right now. Do you think there is a shift in thinking on this issue?
RL: There is unprecedented momentum around paid leave right now, and a number of factors have contributed to what we see as a watershed moment for the policy’s future in this country.
Women now make up nearly half of the workforce and are primary breadwinners in 40 percent of households with children. Women are also still their families’ primary caregivers, so they are disproportionately impacted by conflicts between work and family caused by the nation’s lack of family friendly workplace policies.
There is also a powerful and growing body of evidence from existing paid leave programs and employer policies showing that paid leave benefits workers, their families, businesses and the economy. In particular, the success of paid family leave programs in California, New Jersey and Rhode Island demonstrate that.
People are struggling to manage work and family, and an overwhelming majority of voters (81 percent) want lawmakers to consider new laws that would help, like paid family and medical leave. They also say they are more likely to vote for someone who supports paid leave.
So, in many ways, the issue has become unavoidable for our elected officials. And some are stepping up to help advance the policy. The Obama administration just launched a new tour to highlight the issue, and the President has urged Congress to take action. The administration also dedicated and proposed funding to help states advance paid leave policies. And members of Congress recently reintroduced the Family And Medical Insurance Leave (FAMILY) Act, which would establish a national paid family and medical leave insurance program.
The National Partnership leads a coalition of several hundred organizations that is pushing for the FAMILY Act.
Q: On the flip side, why is it taking the U.S. so long to catch up with the rest of the world? Why have we been unable to have these benefits sooner?
RL: In many ways, our culture is very individualistic and the “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” mentality is pervasive. But we also can’t ignore the strong influence that business and business interests play in our politics and policy landscape. There’s a longstanding misconception that what’s good for workers is bad for business, and in the case of paid family and medical leave—like so many other basic labor protections—that’s simply not true.
But, no matter why the nation has fallen so far behind, the country’s failure to guarantee paid leave hurts working families and our global competitiveness. When women don’t have access to paid leave, it is more difficult for them to remain in the workforce. In fact, women’s workforce participation, which climbed substantially in the United States in the 1970s and 1980s, has stagnated relative to other developed countries.
Q: Studies have shown economic benefits when workplaces have adopted paid family leave. What are the other benefits, the ones that may be less tangible or easily quantifiable?
RL: Overall, paid leave strengthens the economic security of working people and their families. It provides income stability to families with new children, encourages workforce attachment, promotes families’ financial independence and safeguards workers’ income and retirement security. It can also promote men’s involvement in the care of a child—men who take two or more weeks off after the birth of a child are more involved than fathers who take no leave in the direct care of their child nine months later.
Paid leave contributes to improved newborn and child health because newborns whose mothers take leave are more likely to be breastfed, receive medical check-ups and get critical immunizations. Seriously ill children also recover faster when cared for by their parents, and paid leave helps make that possible. It also allows ill or injured adults to get critical care and take needed recovery time, and it enables caregivers to help ill parents, spouses and children fulfill treatment plans and avoid complications and hospital readmissions.
Paid leave reduces worker replacements and improves worker loyalty. It saves the government and taxpayers money through reduced health care costs, reduced reliance on public assistance, more people staying in their jobs and paying taxes, and increased earnings and savings over time.
Q: What would implementing family leave on a federal level mean to the average American?
RL: It would mean that tens of millions of workers and their families could rest easier knowing they are no longer one illness, injury or birth away from financial devastation. It would be a giant leap toward the family friendly America we have long wanted and needed.
Right now, just 13 percent of the workforce has paid family leave through their employers, and less than 40 percent has personal medical leave. That means that, when illness strikes or babies are born, the majority of workers in this country have to choose between their health or the health of their families and their jobs. And the negative effects ripple throughout our communities and society.
A national paid family and medical leave program like the one the Family And Medical Insurance Leave Act would create is a smart, affordable and tested way to ensure that working people in this country can take time to address their own serious health conditions and care for their loved ones without sacrificing their economic security. It’s a common sense policy that would bring our nation’s workplace policies in line with the rest of the word.
A confluence of factors has gotten us to a moment as a nation when we are primed for progress on paid leave. This is a unique and unprecedented moment.
Now, it’s time for lawmakers to make the most of it.
Susan Buttenwieser’s writing has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize and appeared in the Brooklyn Rail, Teachers & Writers magazine and other publications. She teaches creative writing in New York City public schools and with incarcerated women.