The Portland (Maine) Press Herald, June 25, 2014
The United States is the only developed country without a statutory right for paid leave for mothers of newborn babies. Extended to the rest of the world, the list topped by the U.S. includes only Lesotho, Papua New Guinea and Swaziland.
That's it, the sum total of all the countries in the world that don't provide at least some support for mothers who want to stay home with their newborns for the first few weeks.
That's not enough evidence by itself to establish a system of universal paid leave. But it is a sign the United States is on the wrong side of the issue, and evidence points to the clear conclusion that paid parental leave is the right thing to do for newborns, parents and even employers.
President Obama, speaking at the White House Summit on Working Families, cited the lack of paid maternity leave as one of a handful of "basic needs" that "should be part of our bottom line as a society."
He stopped short, however, of endorsing a bill that would give workers 12 weeks of leave at two-thirds of their salary up to $4,000 per month, paid by an increase in payroll-tax contributions of 0.2 percent.
However, the bill, and Obama's statement this week, should generate discussion about how to make universal paid leave a reality. People may disagree about how to put it in place, but the case for paid leave is too strong to leave on the table.
Federal law now guarantees 12 weeks of unpaid, job-protected leave per year for childbirth for employees in companies with 50 or more workers. Maine law goes further, covering companies with 15 or more workers.
Few workers, however, can afford even a short amount of time without a paycheck, and new parents who can't afford a leave of suitable length on their own end up away from their children during a crucial time for development and attachment.
That, research shows, can have an impact on the mental health of the mother and the parental involvement of the father, which in turn can have long-term implications for a child's educational performance.
It also disproportionately hits low-income families, which already face barriers on education and employment for themselves and their children, because the parents tend to work at jobs that don't offer paid leave.
According to the Institute for Women's Policy Research, citing the U.S. Department of Labor, only 12 percent of employees have access to paid family leave -- which includes paternity leave and leave for family illness -- and it gets worse the less you earn.
In the top 25 percent of wage earners, one-fifth of workers can get paid leave, but that falls to 5 percent for wage earners in the bottom 25 percent.
Universal paid leave, however, would correct that inequality.
In the five states that offer a form of paid family leave through employee insurance, women are two times more likely to take leave than in other states, a disparity that grows as income shrinks.
And not only are mothers who take leave afforded more time with their newborns, with all the attendant health and well-being benefits, they also are less likely to need public assistance.
In states offering paid leave, only 10 percent of new mothers drew public assistance in the first year following childbirth, with an average benefit of $358.
In other states, 24 percent of new mothers utilized aid, at an average of $749.
The mothers also are more likely to receive a wage increase in that ensuing year, and their employers report lower recruiting, hiring and training costs, because the mother is more likely to stay with the job.
In fact, a report by the Rutgers Center for Women and Work surveying employers in California, which offers the most comprehensive leave benefit for both mothers and fathers, reported that 87 percent of respondents have found no cost increase since the benefits were put in place in 2002, and 9 percent indicated a savings.
That suggests that employers would benefit by some form of universal paid leave, made flexible enough to account for company size and employee tenure, but available for mothers, fathers and adoptive parents.
And with the benefits to employees clear, there's little reason the U.S. can't join the rest of the world and give new parents some well-needed support.