WTF America: When Will The U.S. Catch Up On Paid Leave For Women?

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Do women need to become stay-at-home moms to take care of our kids properly? Do we need to leave our jobs entirely once our kids are born, fulfilling the traditional role of doting housewife even if we want to work? That’s what the U.S. seems to think, thanks to its paid-leave policies. What paid-leave policies, you ask? That’s exactly right.

For all of our technological advancements and liberal thinking, the U.S. is still lagging behind the rest of the industrialized world in one major way: offering paid parental leave. The only other countries that do not have paid leave are Lesotho, Swaziland and Papua New Guinea.

While some countries even mandate paid leave for fathers, the U.S. has only made one major stride in advancing the paid-leave cause: the Family Medical Leave Act. This law was passed in 1993, and secures an employee’s job for twelve weeks after their baby has arrived. But that’s about it. There’s no required pay, and there are exceptions made for small companies, creating a loophole that some industries may be able to exploit. Individuals who have been in their jobs for less than a year, and people who work less than twenty-four hours in a week are not able to take advantage of this required benefit.

This renders about fifty percent of new moms unable to take any kind of paid leave when they have their kids. Only one fifth of working women with kids receive full pay of any kind during leave, according to a Washington, D.C.-based advocacy group called National Partnership for Women & Families.

When Will We Catch Up?

The question at hand is: why isn’t anything being done about it? The argument for offering paid leave is unequivocal. In two of the three states that do have paid-leave programs for birth of a child (as well as other purposes), 60 percent of employers said that they saved money rather than lost it. State-funded family leave replaced employer sick leave, enabling companies to keep their money in their pockets. As of now, New Jersey, California, and Rhode Island have actually passed paid-leave laws, and the results have been rewarding for employees and businesses alike.

According to Carol Evans, president of Working Mother Media, mandating paid leave is “essential to the health of all working families.” Evans is behind a campaign by Working Mother Media to make paid parental leave available to all U.S. employees this year. She goes on to say that, “it’s critical to the economic health of our companies and our nation. Our ability to compete in the global marketplace depends upon the energy, intelligence, and commitment our mothers and fathers bring to the workplace every day — qualities that are built on a strong family foundation.”

There are also numerous stories of women who have to take unpaid leave to make ends meet, and in turn take on large amounts of debt. Requiring paid leave would alleviate a tremendous financial burden on many of these individuals.

Strides toward improving the situation are being made, but more efforts have been made on the state level than nationally.

The U.S. Department of Labor recently launched a “#LeadonLeave” ” campaign, in which its Twitter hashtag is accompanied by a nationwide tour on the part of Secretary of Labor Thomas Perez and White House senior adviser Valerie Jarrett. These leaders travel across the country to “highlight how states, localities, and businesses are taking the lead on leave,” according to the Department of Labor website. On Tuesday, Secretary Perez stopped in Minnesota, where some cities already offer paid parental leave, including Bloomington and Minneapolis.

Paid Leave On A Smaller Scale

Aside from this campaign, most forward movement on the paid-leave front has come on a smaller scale. On Tuesdayin Harford, CT, paid-leave legislation was approved by the state’s House Appropriations Committee. Washington State’s legislature signed a family leave insurance law in 2007, but the policy has yet to go into effect due to funding. It may never see the light of day, as a 2013 law removed the deadline for implementation.

Really, there hasn’t been much of a push to make paid leave happen. Yet.

Fortunately, some companies have taken the matter into their own hands. Google suffered from substantial attrition of strong female leaders. The company noticed that women were leaving after they had babies. In response, they increased the duration of maternity leave, and replaced partial leave pay with full pay. The attrition rate decreased by fifty percent.

At Yahoo, CEO Marissa Mayer implemented a revamped paid-leave policy to allow women to take a full sixteen weeks off, paid with benefits. Other tech companies have instituted similar policies, including Facebook, even allowing generous leave for women who are not the birth mother of their new child.

Until more happens at the national level, leave policies are in the hands of companies and states. It looks like it will be a grassroots effort, and it will surely face challenges from politicians. Even Hillary Clinton, who argues that she does want it to be implemented, doesn’t see it as a politically feasible goal.

It will also face challenges from the very companies who stand to benefit from it, some of which would be less open to hiring women if required to pay for leave benefits. Business lobby groups stand behind them on the political level to “protect” their interests.

In the meantime, we may hold an entirely new level of appreciation for those moms we see in the grocery store midday with their babies. They may not be there on paid maternity leave; they may have had to leave their jobs.