Progress on parental policies; President Obama makes paid parental leave a priority
By: Sara Cassidy, M.S., Ph.D.
In a press release issued by the White House on January 15th, and reiterated briefly in the State of the Union address on Jan 20th, President Obama asked Congress to pass a bill providing 6 weeks of paid parental leave to all federal employees, a move which aims to fill “a notable gap in federal benefits,” that “can hamper federal agencies’ ability to recruit talented young people to join public service.” The president’s budget also proposes a $50 million State Paid Leave Fund to bolster states that choose to enact paid leave programs1. Currently there are only 5 states which guarantee paid leave to new parents; California, Hawaii, New Jersey, New York, and Rhode Island.
The issue of paid parental leave for federal employees is not a new one in the House. Since 2009, Representative Carolyn Maloney (D – N.Y.) has spearheaded a bill proposing to fund 4 of the 12 weeks of leave given under the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA) for federal employees who are new parents. In its debut, H.R. 626 passed the House in a 276-to-146 vote but stalled in the Senate. Rep. Maloney has supported passage of this bill in every congress since 2009. The most recent iteration, H.R. 517 – Federal Employees Paid Parental Leave Act of 2013, never made it to a House vote2-4.
Offering paid parental leave to federal employees is a step in the right direction toward universal leave for all Americans. In practice, the U.S. is shockingly behind the times in supporting working families. A survey released in May 2014 by the United Nations’ International Labour Organization revealed that the U.S. is the only country in the developed world that does not offer government-mandated paid maternity leave. In fact, the U.S. is one of only 2 countries out of 185 surveyed that provide no cash benefits to women during maternity leave; the other country being Papua New Guinea5.
Science overwhelmingly supports the health benefits of parental leave for both parents and children. Research suggests that mandated leave increases the duration of breastfeeding, and breast milk protects against childhood infections, chronic diseases, and may prevent obesity6. Lack of access to paid parental leave may explain, in part, the poor statistics for breastfeeding in the U.S. compared to other developed countries where paid leave is a right7. Additionally, paid parental leave leads to better long-term health of the child and to lower rates of depression in mothers, according to the National Bureau of Economic Research10,11. Highlighting both positive health and economic benefits, a report on European leave policies found that paid leave is a cost-effective way to reduce infant mortality because it allows parents to better care for their child and monitor their child’s health16.
There are additional economic benefits of paid parental leave. Healthier parents and children incur fewer medical bills, which makes fiscal sense for government-supported healthcare programs, such as Medicare and health plans offered through the Affordable Care Act. And, according to the National Partnership for Women and Families, “Paid leave improves worker retention, which saves employers money through reduced turnover costs.13” The drive to retain highly trained workers in skilled fields, such as information technology (IT), may be the reason why some major players in IT have generous family leave policies. Susan Wojcicki, the CEO of YouTube (which is owned by Google), in a piece for the Wall Street Journal wrote, “When we increased paid maternity leave to 18 weeks from 12 weeks in 2007, the rate at which new moms left Google fell by 50%.8” Although 18 weeks of paid leave will likely never be offered to the majority of Americans, even short stints of paid parental leave can have positive economic benefit. The National Partnership for Women and Families cites a study that found 87% of businesses in California (where 4 weeks of paid state-supported parental leave is offered) reported no increased costs resulting from the state leave policy, and 9% reported cost savings in the form of reduced turnover and/or reduction of their own benefit costs13.
The importance of paid leave for new parents reflects a shift in the social and economic implications of raising a family in the U.S. According to the White House, “it is no longer the case that one parent is the breadwinner while the other is the caregiver. Women now make up nearly half of all workers on U.S. payrolls, and men and women are more evenly sharing care-giving responsibilities.1” Data from a 2012 survey by the Bureau of Labor Statistics report that among families with children, 59% have two working parents9. So, should the government be obligated to help support new families? On one hand, there exists a well documented of dearth of U.S. women in high-profile positions, despite the fact that there are equivalent numbers of men and women getting college degrees in nearly all fields of study. The choice to have children and a lack of subsequent maternity support is often cited as a reason for this imbalance. By that measure, better support for working women could be considered the next logical outgrowth of affirmative action policy, initiated by the Johnson administration in the 60s. However, the issue may be even more striking when considering single parent households and lower-income jobs. Many Americans cannot afford to take unpaid leave and, even if they could save enough for this to be an option, 40% of the American workforce is not covered by FMLA, so unpaid leave after the birth or adoption of a child is not their right. For these workers, mandated paid parental leave, even for only a few weeks, could be the difference between returning to a job or turning to welfare.
Americans from all political backgrounds overwhelmingly agree that it is time to better support working families, according to a poll by the Make it Work campaign, an advocacy organization pushing to make working family issues a priority in 2016, cited by the Washington Post15. But the likelihood of Congress moving on a bill to that effect anytime soon seems slim. The last time Congress passed legislation to support working families was FMLA in 1992, which took 10 years. The good news is that White House coverage of the topic has illuminated the need for better support of working parents. Ultimately, child rearing is a personal choice, but one that should be considered, as it is in other nations, an investment in the future.
- Guendelman S et al. 2009 123(1) pg.e38-e46
- Ruhm C.J. J. Health Econ. (2000) 19(6) pg931-960