Mother’s Day has come and gone — and most mothers have gone back to work. But being a mother in the workforce is uniquely challenging in the United States — the only developed nation in the world that doesn’t have some kind of universal paid maternity leave program.
In fact, any sort of family leave is a relatively recent proposition in the United States: The Family and Medical Leave Act, which guarantees new parents and those with ailing family members the right to take up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave without losing their jobs upon return, was only passed in 1993. The act was meant to be a first step toward a broader program — its requirements for employer size and employee hours, for instance, render approximately 40 percent of the workforce ineligible for coverage — but so far, no further steps have been taken.
Evidence shows that paid leave has tangible health benefits for children and parents and can actually lead to wage growth for women, who are more likely to return to their jobs after having children rather than leaving the workforce altogether. Yet today, only 12 percent of workers have access to paid family leave through their employers, skewed toward those in white-collar industries such as tech, finance or professional services. One in four mothers say they have returned to work within two weeks of childbirth, and while unpaid leave is helpful, most workers can’t afford to spend three months without drawing a paycheck.
So why haven’t our policies caught up to those of the rest of the world? National polls have found that a majority of Americans on both sides of the aisle support paid parental leave. President Obama called for better leave policy in his final State of the Union address, and both Democratic presidential candidates have signaled support. (Presumptive Republican nominee Donald Trump’s most recent statement on the issue: “We have to keep our country very competitive, so you have to be careful of it.”) Still, action has yet to be taken on the federal level. The result is that states and municipalities are beginning to take action into their own hands.
As of today, California, New Jersey and Rhode Island are the only states that offer paid family and medical leave to workers, ranging from four to six weeks at partial pay and funded through an employee payroll deduction. Last month, New York state passed legislation that, when fully implemented in 2017, will cover approximately two-thirds of a worker’s average wages for up to 12 weeks, making it the most generous policy on offer. Washington, D.C. is considering a controversial plan that would cover up to 12 weeks of family leave at 90 percent of pay, which would surpass any other policy in the country.
Opponents of the D.C. plan have focused on the concerns most often highlighted by critics of paid leave: the costs and potential unintended consequences. The plan proposes a payroll tax on employers to fund a pool of money for reimbursement (similar to Hillary Clinton’s proposed method to fund leave nationally), but many worry that additional taxes could prove an undue burden on employers — especially small businesses — and make companies less likely to hire or promote women they think will take long leaves.
Though policy proposals vary, paid family leave is possible, as nearly every other country in the world has shown. What is the best way to make it a reality in the United States? And what does our reluctance to embrace paid leave say about the way we view family and work?
Over the next few days, we’ll hear from:
Ruth Milkman, sociologist at City University of New York,
Vicki Larson, journalist and co-author of “The New I Do: Reshaping Marriage for Skeptics, Realists and Rebels”
Isabel Sawhill, senior fellow at Brookings Institution
Sarah Jane Glynn, director of women’s economic policy at the Center for American Progress
Carrie Lukas, managing director at the Independent Women’s Forum
Anne-Marie Slaughter, president and chief executive of New America, and Brigid Schulte, journalist and director of the Better Life Lab at New America