The United States’ failure to provide federally-mandated paid parental leave is undoubtedly one of its greatest social and economic oversights and has grown to become an issue with a great deal of political heft in recent years. The current state of paid parental leave in the U.S. is dismal, to say the least; with only California, Rhode Island, and New Jersey boasting legislation for partially-paid parental leave, the nation strays far behind all other developed countries and has a lack of legislation on par with only Papua New Guinea out of 185 other nations.
In 2016, the state of New York passed legislation to guarantee that by 2018, parents in the state have access to the most progressive policy in the nation: up to 8 weeks of leave at half of their salaries for all employees who had held their jobs for over 6 months.
However, despite these state supplements, the federal legislation remains embarrassingly unprogressive and fiercely sexist, with 12 weeks of unpaid leave guaranteed only for new mothers. To put this in perspective, in terms of paid maternity leave, this places the United States behind Iran, Mexico, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo by a margin of at least 12 weeks.
While the Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993 provided the initial framework for maternity leave in the United States, it came with a whole host of stipulations such as the number of workers employed by a company and the amount of time employed by a company that currently excludes more than half of all American workers. This leaves new mothers with few options: one quarter of all women are forced to leave their jobs when they have a new child, one third are forced to dip into their savings or borrow money, and 15% are forced to go on public assistance.
For a developed country that claims to provide equal employment opportunities for men and women, this abject lack of paid maternal leave deals a debilitating blow to women’s choices in full-time careers.
As for the economic consequences of providing paid maternal leave, preliminary evidence from California and New Jersey has shown that the majority of businesses report either no decline in profit, employee performance, or productivity, or they have actually benefited from the change. As the benefits also help to reduce employee turnover, California also estimates that the legislation has saved employers up to $89 million each year.
So, why is it exactly that the United States still lags so horrendously behind other developed nations on this issue?
The narrative starts with World War I and World War II, when countries’ populations had been decimated, the economic value of women as workers and child-bearers shot up, forcing employers to reconcile with the notion that women should be paid even when they have babies. Vicki Shabo, Vice President of the National Partnership for Women and Families explains that this story didn’t really apply to the United States as it did to Europe, partly due to a lower number of casualties sustained after the world wars but also due to the fact that most men were able to simply return to the workforce after the war.
Since the 1960s, a handful of states have attempted to legislate paid maternal leave within the framework of disability benefits but somehow, the idea never seemed to stick. After the far-right days of the Reagan administration, the individualistic notion that taxes shouldn’t be used to bail parents out became normalized and the concept of maternity leave was largely ignored. Later, in the 1980s, Democratic attempts to recover the idea began to use the term “family leave” to create broader appeal but it ultimately backfired as the term came to encompass not only newborns but the elderly as well, leading to a perception across the political spectrum that the idea of “family leave” was simply too expensive to humour.
During the Obama administration, labor departments in a dozen states were given federal grants to develop paid family leave programs that could eventually be adopted by federal legislation. However, there was still substantial resistance, with the Congressional Budget Office concluding in 2009 that any family leave bill could cost the government around $200 million a year.
Overwhelmingly, however, the issue of paid leave has been boiled down to an unacceptable lack of women in congress (around 20% of members are women) and sexist biases that perceive women as less valuable members of the workforce.
However, earlier this year, President Trump told a joint session of Congress that he aims to work with them on both paid family leave and affordable child care – both issues that have long been the territory of the Democrats. This proposal from a Republican president with the least amount of women in his first cabinet since the Reagan administration is a surprising turn of events (one that has likely been propelled by Ivanka Trump’s insistence on a child care tax credit). While Trump’s proposal for six weeks of paid leave involves a glaring lack of recognition for fathers and adoptive parents, this may still be regarded (if implemented) as a step in the right direction for U.S. legislation.
As for paternity leave, it seems that private companies are also beginning to normalize this trend in the U.S, with Spotify, Netflix, and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation all bumping up their parental leave policies to boost gender equality in the workplace and at home by including fathers.
Cover photo credit: Newsweek