The United States is one of the few industrialized countries in the world, other than Papua New Guinea, that doesn’t require employers to offer paid leave.
Currently the United States only offers 12 weeks of unpaid leave in a single year under the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA). Research has shown that paid leave affects the health of newborns, job retention for parents and employee morale.
Director of Advocacy for Zero to Three, Elizabeth DiLauro, works on educating parents and policymakers about how maternity leave is vital in helping a baby’s brain develop during the beginning of their life.
“In the first months and years of life, babies discover the world through experiences with their parents and other caregivers,” DiLauro said. “A baby’s early relationships, especially with parents, literally shape the architecture of the developing brain, building the foundation for all later development and learning.”
California: The Success Story
Unlike most states, California successfully implemented the nation’s first Paid Family Leave (PFL) program in 2002, but did not begin implementing the policy until 2004. PFL offers employees up to six weeks of paid leave at 55 percent of their weekly earnings which has been proven to offer benefits to infants, parents and businesses.
Researchers Eileen Applebaum and Ruth Milkman conducted a report in 2011 following the passage of the PFL. The findings, titled “Leaves that Pay” explores employer and workers experiences after more than five full years of paid leave in California.
“Leaves that Pay” revealed that more than 80 percent of new parents who had taken paid leave reported being able to care for their child better, meaning that they had better resources to bond with their child, breastfeed and arrange long-term child care.
The report also showed that 99 percent of employers reported seeing benefits in their employees’s morale and the PFL improved turnover rates by 92.8 percent. Parents using PFL also reported receiving much higher wage replacement, with up to 83.8 percent receiving more than half of their usual weekly income.
In the long run, children are also benefiting from the PFL program in California. “Leaves that Pay” reported that PFL doubled the median length of average breastfeeding from five to 11 weeks which has shown to increase the health and immunity of newborns.
“Use of PFL greatly increased the level of wage replacement during family leaves for respondents in low-quality jobs: 84 percent of those in low-quality jobs who used PFL received at least half of their usual pay while on leave, compared with 31 percent of those in low-quality jobs who did not use it,” reported “Leaves that Pay.”
Nicole Piland, 38, of Fresno, California, appreciated the six weeks of paid leave she received in 2012 when she gave birth to her twin girls because it provided financial security for her family during the transition.
“Returning back to work was good for me as I was no longer breastfeeding,” Piland said. “I also had my nanny come to my house so I felt very supported.”
Piland explained that her husband also took six weeks off from work through PFL which helped them both adjust to being new parents, but she wished they had even more time with their girls.
“The first few months were necessary for us to be home to establish feeding and a schedule,” Piland said. “But I think having longer time off would have been better for bonding, especially in the first year of their life. Although I was ready to get back to work, it would have been nice to have the option.”
The State of Paid Leave in America
Unlike California, 40 other states operate under the federal Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) to offer employees 12 weeks of unpaid leave in a single year. The FMLA can be used not only for maternity and paternity leave, but also to care for an ill family member.
However, for employees to receive this unpaid leave, they must meet specific requirements.
According to the US Department of Labor the FMLA applies to employees who need leave for:
- The birth of a child and to care for the newborn child within one year of birth
- The placement with the employee of a child for adoption or foster care and to care for a newly placed child within one year of placement
- To care for the employee’s spouse, child, or parent who has a serious health condition
- A serious health condition that makes the employee unable to perform the essential functions of his or her job
- Any qualifying exigency arising out of the fact that the employee’s spouse, son, daughter, or parent is a covered military member on “covered active duty”
In addition to meeting the above criteria, employees are only covered under FMLA if they also meet these three criteria:
- They work for a company that has 50 or more employees within 75 miles of the workplace
- They worked for the employer for at least one year before taking the FMLA leave
- They worked at least 1,250 hours in that year (about 25 hours per week)
The problem that many new parents face is a lack of access to FMLA benefits or the financial inability to take unpaid time off. Employers reported that only 11 percent of workers are covered by formal paid leave policies as stated in President Obama’s June 2014 Economics of Paid and Unpaid Leave.
“FMLA is unpaid, and it disproportionately jeopardizes babies living in low-income households,” DiLauro said. “Their parents are less likely than more affluent parents to have access to FMLA benefits, and even if they do, they likely cannot afford to take advantage of the unpaid time off.”
DiLauro at Zero to Three works to create policies to influence change that can be beneficial for both developing babies, and their parents returning to work.
“New parents shouldn’t have to choose between their economic security and precious bonding time with their baby,” DiLauro said. “The research is clear that a period of paid leave with a newborn or newly adopted child contributes to a child’s healthy development. Paid leave policies have benefits for the entire family as well.”
Support from Businesses is Difficult, Crucial
Business owners in California had concerns that the paid leave policies would place a financial burden on them, however, “Leaves that Pay” revealed that employers reported no negative effects, but actually benefited from PFL.
In 2010, researchers Applebaum and Milkman surveyed 175 employers with different firm sizes ranging from less than 50 employees to over 100. The study reported that almost 99 percent of employers reported that PFL boosted morale.
In addition, 92.8 percent said PFL helped with turnover rates, 91 percent said it helped with profitability/performance and 88.5 percent said PFL helped with productivity.
California has been a major example for advocates across the nation in working towards paid leave policy change. A Better Balance is a nationwide advocacy group that had their most recent success in New York where a family paid leave policy was signed into law in April.
Jared Make, senior staff attorney at A Better Balance, used California as an example for New York businesses to view how a paid leave policy could improve their workspace.
“It was especially important to highlight research showing that paid family leave laws have worked well in California, New Jersey and Rhode Island,” Make said. “It was important to engage with businesses, develop materials that showed why a paid family leave law is helpful to businesses.”
Some nation-wide businesses, like PayPal and Netflix, are catching on to the benefits of paid parental leave. Netflix announced in March that they would begin offering an unheard of full year of paid maternity and paternity leave. While based in California, PayPal also offers six weeks of paid leave to employees across the country.
PayPal employee Rebecca Francom of Scottsdale, Arizona, received six weeks of paid at 80 percent of her salary. Her paid six weeks alongside an additional unpaid six weeks allowed Francom and her family to adjust to their new life.
“It was incredibly important, not only for the me and my husband, but more importantly, for the baby,” Francom said. “It is important for the parents to have this time. They have a new adjustment to overcome in their daily lives and also need that time with the baby. To not have bonding time would be overwhelming for the mother, father and baby.”
Use California as an Example
For the 46 states who do not offer paid leave, Make suggests that advocates begin by contacting organizations like A Better Balance to get started.
“Through legislative advocacy, litigation, research, public education, and technical assistance to state and local campaigns, we [A Better Balance] are working around the country to advance policies that ensure workers can care for their families without risking their economic security,” Make said.
A Better Balance, who can boast about their recent victory in New York, offers services to help states who lack paid leave policies.
“We have a model paid family and medical leave bill, and we work with state campaigns who are interested in introducing a version of it in their own state,” Make said. “We can also offer in-depth strategic, policy and organizing advice based on our experiences here in New York and in other states around the country.”
After recent victories in New York and the proven success in California, paid-leave advocates like DiLauro and Make are hopeful that the momentum will carry nation-wide laws into practice.
“I think we are approaching a tipping point,” DiLauro said. “We need to capitalize on this momentum and build the political will to pass a national paid family and medical leave law.”