Most of us probably expressed some appreciation yesterday for our mothers. Despite the brunches, flower sales, and media attention lavished on moms each Mother’s Day, though, US policy doesn’t express as much appreciation for mothers (or fathers) as it should. Jennifer Senior shared this graphic on Twitter:
When Australia passed a new parental leave law in 2010, the US became the only industrialized nation that does not provide paid leave to mothers of newborns. As Senior pointed out in her tweet, Pakistan is more progressive than the US in this regard (mothers there get 12 weeks of paid maternity leave). Ideally, paid parental leave would be available to both mothers and fathers; this is the case in more than 50 out of 178 nations, notes Amanda Peterson Beadle at ThinkProgress.
Some US employers do offer paid maternity or parental leave; analysis of 2006-2008 Census data found that fewer than half of women who were working during the pregnancies of their first births used paid leave following those births. For those without sufficient paid-leave benefits, the Family and Medical Leave Act allows new parents (mothers and fathers of new birth, adopted, or foster children) up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave. FMLA leave is only an option for around 60% of the US workforce, though, because it's only available to employees who've worked at least 1,250 hours over the past 12 months (e.g., 24 hours per week) for employers with 50 or more employees. The fact that FMLA leave is unpaid also means that many of those who are entitled to its benefits simply can't afford to take off the allowed time.
In a policy statement urging US lawmakers to make paid sick, medical, and family leave broadly available to US workers, the American Public Health Association summarizes some of the many public-health benefits of maternity leave (which is more widely studied than non-gender-specific parental leave):
Maternity leave is one of the most studied forms of employment leave, and, depending on its duration, it is associated with a variety of public health benefits. These benefits include prolonged gestation and reductions in cesarean deliveries, more well-baby visits, decreased infant mortality, longer periods of breastfeeding, and improved mental health of new mothers. In some studies, these positive effects are identified only when the maternity leave is paid.
California, New Jersey, and Rhode Island have all established social insurance systems that use payroll-tax funds to replace a portion of workers’ salaries for several weeks when they miss work to care for new children or seriously ill family members. And the Family and Medical Leave Insurance Act, or FAMILY Act, introduced into the US Congress by Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) and Representative Rosa DeLauro (D-CT) in December, would create a similar system covering the whole nation. I summarized the Act's provisions when it was introduced:
A new office within the Social Security Administration would administer the system, which would be funded by a payroll tax (two-tenths of one percent of workers’ wages, or $1.50 per week for the average worker). Eligible employees could receive 66% of their monthly wages, up to a capped amount, for up to 12 weeks while dealing with their own serious health conditions, bonding with a new birth or adopted child, or caring for a family member (including a domestic partner) with a serious health condition.
... The FAMILY Act would address major gaps left by the FMLA. Family and medical leave would be paid, and it would be available to workers regardless of whether they work full-time or part-time, how long they’ve worked for their current employer, and how large their employer is. Anyone who pays into Social Security and is eligible for Social Security Disability Insurance benefits would be able to receive partial salary replacement under the FAMILY Act.
If the FAMILY Act becomes law, it will help demonstrate that the US truly does value the important work parents do.