American moms will be getting generous gifts on Mother's Day: the National Retail Federation estimates that in 2011 the average American will spend $141 on Mother's Day gifts, with total spending of about $16.3 billion.
Moms are valuable, right? Your average consumer thinks so, but when it comes to laws and policies, it seems that lawmakers don't agree.
A prime example is the lack of paid family leave -- including maternity leave -- under U.S. law. In all but two states (California and New Jersey), there is no guarantee under law of paid leave from work after childbirth or adoption. The federal Family and Medical Leave Act guarantees only unpaid leave, and almost half of U.S. workers aren't even eligible for that.
Families the world over value their moms, and in most places government policies reflect this. At least 178 countries have national laws requiring paid leave for new moms (and many also do for new dads), according to a 2010 study by experts at McGill and Northeastern Universities. In nine countries the researchers had insufficient information on paid leave policies, but in just three they found there is definitely no law on paid leave for new moms: the United States, Papua New Guinea, and Swaziland.
Other countries guarantee this paid leave not out of altruism, but because it pays off. Paid leave programs have positive results for businesses, economies, and public health. A study of 19 developed countries found that paid parental leave had a greater positive effect on productivity than unpaid leave, and predicted that instituting 15 weeks of paid maternity leave in countries without it (like the U.S.) would increase multi-factor productivity by 1.1 percent. For businesses, paid leave helps retain employees and avoid turnover costs. One study found that 94 percent of leave-takers who received full pay returned to the same employer, compared with 76 percent of those with no pay.
Paid leave is also good for public health, and for containing health care costs. Paid and sufficiently long leaves for new moms are associated with lower infant mortality, lower risk of postpartum depression, higher rates of immunization for babies, and higher breastfeeding rates. A 2010 study found that the U.S. could prevent nearly 900 infant deaths and save $13 billion a year if 90 percent of mothers breastfed exclusively for six months. That is less likely to happen if a mother returns to work within weeks of childbirth -- often the case for moms with no paid leave.
You might ask why laws are needed when employers can voluntarily offer paid leave. The reality is that leaving this to employer whim results in paid family leave being available to few workers, and in gross disparities by income-level. According to Department of Labor data, about 11 percent of workers -- mostly high paid professionals -- have paid family leave benefits, hardly a huge percentage. But only 3 percent of the lowest-income workers have these benefits. Others might have paid sick days, but about a third of workers have no such benefits.
You might also worry about burdens on employers of paid leave. But the programs in California and New Jersey show that paid leave imposes few burdens, and in fact offers significant benefits, for employers. These two states offer partial pay for up to six weeks of family leave, funded exclusively by employee payroll deductions -- not a penny from employers. In New Jersey, for example, workers pay a maximum of $18 per year into the paid leave fund. A 2011 study on the California program, also funded exclusively by worker contributions, found that employers overwhelmingly report positive or neutral effects of the program on productivity, profitability, turnover, and employee morale. Small businesses in California were less likely than large ones to report any negative effect.
Perhaps policy-makers have failed to adopt paid family leave laws because they fear voters will oppose them. But a 2010 survey of registered voters found that 76 percent of respondents supported laws on paid leave for family care and childbirth. Voters seem to understand that supporting working families with paid leave is good for families and good for business.
If the average American will spend $141 on Mother's Day gifts, is it really so hard to imagine joining the ranks of almost all other countries by guaranteeing paid family leave under law? Moms will love flowers and chocolate on Mother's Day, but they may be even happier to get a little support through paid leave when new babies arrive.
Janet Walsh is deputy women's rights director at Human Rights Watch and author "Failing its Families: Lack of Paid Leave and Work-Family Supports in the US."