First Comes Conceive, Second Comes Paid Leave
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“Just enjoy it,” friends, relatives, and co-workers often advise new parents. “You will never get back the time you spend with your newborn.” It’s an exciting, stressful, frustrating, and exhilarating period, yet most parents have to choose between family and making enough to support it. How can new parents possibly “just enjoy it” without national paid family leave?
There are currently six countries in the world with no national paid leave. The United States is one of them. It is also one of seven countries without national paid maternal leave and one of 83 countries without national paid paternity leave. Throughout the world, the average paid maternity leave is 29 weeks, and the average paid paternity leave is 16 weeks. Among wealthy countries, the United States is alone in its lack of a national paid leave program.
Parental leave in the United States started in 1993 with the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) signed into legislation by President Bill Clinton. The act requires employers to provide mothers of newborn or newly adopted children with 12 weeks of job-protected, unpaid leave if they are employed at a location with 50 or more employees. For workers at locations with less than 50 employees, employers are not legally required to provide any kind of leave, paid or unpaid, to care for a new child. While this legislation ensures employees can maintain their jobs, it puts new parents in a difficult financial position; they are forced to choose between taking care of their family and receiving a paycheck.
Twenty-nine years have passed since this act was signed into legislation. Currently, leave from work is nearly unattainable for 62 percent of workers. They are either ineligible for leave under the FMLA or simply cannot afford to take unpaid leave. About 40 percent of the workforce is ineligible for time off under the FMLA due to employer size and working hour requirements. An additional 22 percent of the workforce is eligible for unpaid time off but cannot afford to take that leave. Only around 17 percent of the current workforce has access to paid family leave through their employers.
The lack of paid family leave has dire consequences for families. Nearly 25 percent of new moms return to work within only two weeks of giving birth, 75 percent of fathers in professional jobs return to work within a week of having a newborn, and about 60 percent of low-income fathers do not take paid leave at all. For new parents, this situation makes it virtually impossible to bond with their newborns, adjust to parenthood, and enjoy this new chapter in their lives.
Currently, only nine states and Washington, D.C. have enacted paid family leave programs. However, access to paid leave should not depend on where new parents live or who their employers are—it must be implemented nationwide.
Especially for low-income families, paid leave is a necessity, not a benefit. Far too many new parents are forced to rush back to their jobs a few weeks after having a newborn because they cannot survive without a new paycheck. Parents should not have to choose between abandoning their newborn to be able to pay their bills and staying home but having to worry about paychecks. Paid leave ensures workers can meet their personal needs while fulfilling their responsibilities at work. It is not a privilege, but a necessity.