In the United States, 70% of working women are mothers, and yet we are one of only three nations (out of 181 studied by McGill and Harvard Universities) that don't have paid parental leave. It's a fact we don't talk about very much, and through our silence, we're failing families. It's about time we stand up and advocate for a nationwide policy providing paid maternity leave in this country.
When moms have to go back to work too early, the whole family can suffer. Needing to juggle the responsibilities of both work and family too soon can make it hard for new moms to be at their best in either role. Worries about baby can make it hard for mom to focus on work. Meanwhile, a busy work schedule means having to work harder to coordinate child care or schedule well-baby appointments and developmental screenings. Some women may even find themselves giving up breastfeeding long before they or baby are ready. Just as troubling, when moms choose to extend their time at home with baby, many families have no choice but to request government assistance to make up for lost income. Listen to a working mom talk about why paid parental leave is important.
The United States occupies a shocking position behind other developed countries when it comes to providing parental leave. At least 178 countries have national laws that guarantee paid leave for new mothers (with 50 also guaranteeing paid leave for new fathers!). Of these, more than 100 countries (including Canada, Australia, and the United Kingdom) offer at least 14 weeks of paid leave for new mothers. The Organization for Economic Co-Operation and Development comprises 34 of the world's most developed countries, and among them they provide an average 18 weeks of paid maternity leave, with an average of 13 weeks at full pay; the United States is the exception.
What are we missing here?
The U.S. is one of the wealthiest countries on earth, with access to all the current research and knowledge, yet we stand alongside New Guinea and Swaiziland in our policies on paid parental leave. The only federal law we have in place -- the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) -- allows U.S. workers to take up to 12 weeks of UNPAID job-protected leave to care for new children or family members with serious medical conditions. Not only is this policy woefully inadequate for the financial realities families face, but read between the lines and you'll find it only covers about half the workforce. As just one example of FMLA's shortcomings, it does not extend to private sector businesses with fewer than 50 employees. When it comes time for any of the millions of American workers at such small business to ask for time off as a new parent, their job security is dependent on the goodwill of their employers. Even more, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, only 11% of non-government workers and 3% of the lowest-income workers have paid family leave benefits. This is shameful.
California and New Jersey have taken steps to do better. Their paid family leave insurance programs, funded through small employee payroll tax contributions, stand out for the positive effects they've shown for employees and businesses alike. But what about the other 48 states? U.S. families deserve more.
It's time for the U.S. to catch up with the rest of the industrialized world and stand up for the rights of women and babies. They deserve better, they want better, and our country can do better if we stand together and demand change today.
Follow J. Ronald Lally on Twitter: www.twitter.com/forourbabies