It’s no secret that the United States is one of just a handful of countries without a national, paid parental leave policy. In the U.S., where 40 percent of households are headed by a female earner, 88 percent of working women do not have access to even a single day of paid maternity leave.
In a country that claims to cherish hard-working families, the fact that we are failing to support their basic well-being is both hypocritical and short-sighted.
As an advocate for working parents, I regularly hear the stories of mothers and fathers across the nation. Julie’s story (name changed to protect privacy) is just one: last fall, she was expecting her first child and she only had access to unpaid leave. But Julie couldn’t afford to give up her paycheck for more than two weeks. In an effort to save money to extend that time, at six months pregnant Julie took a second job, working eight-hour shifts on her feet in a smoke-filled casino.
Two weeks off after giving birth is the reality for nearly a quarter of working mothers in America. Two weeks means unhealed wounds, bleeding, increased risks of postpartum mood disorders, and reduced breastfeeding rates. Two weeks means putting a newborn with a brand-new immune system into daycare.
Our failure to invest in paid family leave policies also reveals a lack of economic foresight: families – our most vital natural resource – are healthier and more financially stable when parents have paid time at home.
Women who return to work after paid leave are less likely to receive public assistance, including food stamps, in the year after the birth of a child. Paid leave also has implications on the wealth gap, because stepping out of the labor force, even briefly, negatively impacts a woman’s earning potential and reduces her benefits in retirement. But paid leave is not just good for women – it’s good for our economy as a whole. The conservative think tank American Enterprise Institute recently found that ensuring women’s ongoing participation in the labor force could increase GDP by 11 percent.
Smart paid leave policies can also provide benefits to small businesses, which compete with big businesses for the same pool of talented workers. Many small businesses cannot afford to finance paid leave out of their own cash flow, so a paid leave program like the one proposed in Connecticut would help level the playing field for small businesses when it comes to the war for talent.
The data is clear: paid leave is essential for families, for employers, and for the economy. So why, as a nation, are our actions so out of sync with our words about the importance of working families?
This week I am in Connecticut with the state’s Campaign for Paid Family Leave, a coalition of advocates pushing for the passage of a smart system of paid leave. This system is entirely employee-funded. It will offer workers 12 weeks of paid time off to welcome a baby or care for themselves or an ill loved one. It will be paid at 100 percent of a worker’s earnings, which is essential to ensuring that lower-income workers can afford to use the benefit.
I’ve heard that it’s a tough economic climate to pass paid leave here in Connecticut. But it’s also tough for small businesses to compete for the best workers. It’s a tough climate to lose working women as contributors to the economy. It’s a tough climate to place working families under enormous financial strain. Those economic repercussions ultimately affect us all.
Our current federal law – FMLA – covers barely half of the workforce with unpaid leave that many cannot even afford to take. A voluntary company-by-company approach leaves out low-wage workers, and many parents across the economic spectrum to boot.
I’m with you, Connecticut. The time is now to pass paid leave. Basic support for the families that make up the fabric of this nation is morally right, economically necessary, and reflective of the values that make this country great.
Jessica Shortall is an author, social impact strategist, and nationally recognized speaker whose recent TED talk on parental leave has garnered over a million views.