Barack Obama understands the tribulations of child rearing. “People think the gray [in his hair] is from the job,” Michelle Obama famously told Good Morning America’s Robin Roberts. “It’s from his children.”
Unfortunately, understanding has not translated into action. The U.S. has no federal policy granting new parents (yes, new dads need time to adjust, bond, and learn to take care of an infant, too) paid leave. This is a huge problem that has broad implications for American citizens, businesses, and society.
Twenty years ago, Bill Clinton stepped up and signed the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA). The law grants 12 weeks unpaid leave with continuation of health benefits to care for a new child or a parent, same-sex spouse (another issue, for another article), or child who has fallen ill. If you're among the 60% of Americans who has worked for at least a year at a company with 50 or more employees, and you can afford to take 12 weeks off without pay, then this law applies to you and is somewhat helpful. Even then, it's the first step, not the final product.
Obama, take note — paid time off for new parents needs to be a high priority item on your to-do list. Here are the top 5 reasons why.
The U.S. is one of just a handful countries that don’t offer paid maternity leave (at least — many offer paternity leave as well!) of some kind. Yes, you heard that right. The U.S. sits in fine company with Papua New Guinea, Swaziland, and some small islands in the South Pacific as countries that don’t at least offer paid maternity leave. Even North Korea offers 11 weeks paid maternity leave…
Childbirth isn’t some natural disaster that strikes with disastrous randomness (OK, for some people it is). As a societal force, it’s regular, predictable, and certain. By refusing to put in place laws which acknowledge and plan for childbirth, our government neglects to take the necessary steps to create a uniform procedure for this regular occurrence.
This leaves families and employers unprepared and uncertain about the implications and protocol. By putting a uniform national policy in place, on the other hand, employees and employers can plan for it appropriately, determining funds, policies, and plans to redistribute work while new parents are out.
Think about it. Republicans want to be perceived as guardians of traditional family values, and Democrats want to be perceived as champions of low-income people — the population most dramatically impacted by the lack of paid parental leave. Mandatory paid parental leave would not be a popular bill for anyone on either side of the aisle to oppose. Yet enacting it would have long-term benefits for American citizens. Obama should jump on this opportunity to make his mark.
Longer periods of maternity leave are directly correlated with longer breastfeeding periods and, ultimately, longer lives. This leads to lower health costs and a stronger population. But it’s not strictly a health issue. When women and men are guaranteed the ability to return to work after take paid time off, companies avoid having to recruit and train new employees. When new parents don’t have this opportunity, or when they're forced to take the time off unpaid, many of them have no choice but to apply for public assistance. Now who do you suppose pays for that?
By addressing the issue reactively (by placing the burden of financial assistance on taxpayers once these new parents are forced to seek it) instead of proactively (by paying the cost of leave upfront), taxpayers are left to foot a bill which could potentially go on for an indefinite period of time as new parents looks for a job and struggle to get back on their feet. And businesses are put in the undesirable position of having to recruit and train new employees, when they’d be better off waiting for the ones who they've already invested the time and money in.
If the federal government isn’t providing new parents with paid time off to adjust and bond with their child, you would hope that either states or employers would step in and pick up the slack. Only three states, however — California, New Jersey, and Washington — have laws that require employers to give paid leave to new parents.
Employers are giving an equally uninspiring performance. Just 11% of private sector employers grant new parents paid leave. The public sector does slightly better, clocking in at 17%. This means that the vast majority of new parents are forced to resort to short-term disability and other various forms of paid and unpaid vacation and sick time.
As Obama or any parent would tell you, child rearing is not for the faint of heart. Paid time off to recover from giving birth, adjust to a new family member, and learn how to care for the tyke is absolutely a right (a right which 99% of the world's nations recognize). A formal federal policy would acknowledge the reality of childbirth and put in place a unified plan to help businesses and families prepare for it. Let's not wait until Papua New Guinea and Swaziland have enacted their own parental leave laws. This is embarrassing enough as is.