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Making the Case for Paid Family Leave

As I move full steam ahead into my 30s, friends all around are beginning to start families and have babies.  Watching them go through pregnancies is exciting, observing them as they bond with babies is special, and experiencing them letting me bond with their babies is something I have no words for sometimes.  This past weekend I visited a friend in the hospital and snuggled her 28-hour-old little one.  It was mesmerizing.

Yet one thing that is not fun to watch them do is try to figure out how to physically recover, survive on little sleep, and manage with little or no income while they prepare to go back to work too quickly. Family leave laws in the United States lag behind those in other countries. Ninety eight countries around the world offer at least 14 weeks of paid family leave, while the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA), a federal law, guarantees 12 weeks of job-protected leave for families in need of a medical leave from work (e.g., for their own health, the birth of a baby, adoption of a child, or to care for an ailing spouse, parent or child).  However, this provision is only required for employers with 50 or more employees and does not guarantee income during the 12 weeks.  The United States and Papua New Guinea are the only two countries in the world to not provide any income coverage during maternity leave, thereby not meeting the International Labor Organization’s (ILO) recommendation of providing at least two thirds of a woman’s income while she is on maternity leave.  In addition, only 59 percent of workers report meeting all of the eligibility criteria for FMLA, leaving over 40 percent of U.S. employees uncovered.  This results in only one half of American women taking five or more weeks of paid maternity leave after the birth of a child, based on data published by U.S. Department of Health and Human Services in 2011.

States can pass their own laws to increase benefits, and California, Connecticut, Hawaii, Maine, Minnesota, New Jersey, Oregon, Rhode Island, Vermont, Washington and Wisconsin, as well as Washington, D.C., have passed such laws.  These laws have generally increased who is eligible or the length of protected time; however, California, Rhode Island, and New Jersey have also added components to cover employees’ incomes.  All three of these states have paid family leave laws that are funded through payroll taxes and are implemented through each of the states’ disability programs.

Paid family leave programs have been found to have positive effects on both mothers’ and babies’ health.  Women who worked before the birth of their child were more likely to report depressive symptoms and poorer overall health if they had fewer than 12 weeks of maternity leave and fewer than eight weeks of paid time off, according to research published in the Journal of Mental Health Policy and EconomicsAdditionally, a recent story in the New Yorker about the New Jersey program reported that there seem to be fewer harmful effects on women’s economic well-being. Researchers found that women who had taken leave were more likely to be working nine to twelve months after the birth of their child, 39 percent fewer were on public assistance, and 54 percent had higher wages.  In California, lower-income and minority women, who had previously reported taking only one week off after a birth, had similar results.  Though I have not found studies explaining it this way, one might hypothesize that this higher incidence of economic harm could be explained by the idea that mothers who had no protected leave and returned to work quickly were stretched too thinly and lacked the time to physically recover, forcing them to quit working months later when the stress, lack of sleep, and slow physical recovery finally caught up to them.  Paid family leave also encourages men to take time off, bond with their baby, and share care-taking responsibilities – all associated with better overall health of the child.

For children, the benefits are also clear. Paid time off is associated with lower incidence of pre-term and low birthweight babies, longer exclusive breastfeeding and more breastfeeding overall, higher vaccination rates of children, more use of well-baby care, lower incidence of externalizing behavioral problems, and reduced overall mortality.  Recent research in the Journal of Health Economics reports that the children of unmarried and black mothers particularly benefit.

I look forward to a time when my friends rely on their friends and family because they provide positive supports, and not out of physical or financial desperation.

Hannah Lantos, Research Scientist


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