Parental Leave in the United States

The United States is the only country in the OECD that does not have a national mandate for paid parental leave, let alone paid maternal leave. At one end of the spectrum, Bulgaria offers their mothers almost 60 weeks (15 months) of paid maternal leave while at the other end of the spectrum, there’s the U.S. with 0 weeks of paid maternal leave (and, in second-to-last is Portugal, with 6 weeks of 100% paid maternal leave). Keeping in mind who is in the White House, is it appropriate to engender (or even expect) change at a national level? Furthermore, what policies should we focus on: parental, paternal, or maternal leave, and why? 

First, I will briefly summarize the options available to parents right now in the United States. National policy is sparse, with the Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993 (FMLA) and a subsequent revision making a provision for eligible employees to get 12 weeks of unpaid leave in a 12-month period for specific family and medical reasons, which happens to include taking care of a newborn child. That is the only provision at the national level, with only 14 states (including the District of Columbia) making further extensions, with New York implementing a gradually increasing paid-leave provision in 2018 that starts with covering 50% of the average weekly wage for 8 weeks. 

The positives of the national policy include the lack of distinctions between fathers and mothers (and with the 2015 revision, eligibility for those in same-sex marriages for benefits as well) and the requirement of the continuation of group health insurance coverage during the period of leave. The main drawback is that the policy leaves much to be desired. FMLA is unpaid, which means those that choose to take advantage of it lack compensation for the duration of their leave. On top of that, the specifics of FMLA only cover certain employees: all public agencies of any size are covered, but private companies must have 50 or more employees and the employee must have worked an average of 24 hours per week for one year before the unpaid leave is taken. According to a 2013 survey by the Department of Labor almost 60% of employees in the U.S. are covered by the policy, which at a labor force participation rate of 63% leaves more than 64 million Americans in the lurch. The FMLA is unpaid leave, so for the 60% of people who are covered, there is still a subset of covered Americans who cannot afford to take advantage of the benefits because they need the income to get by.

This problem is exacerbated for women in the workforce, since the decision to take maternal leave often leads to eventual outcomes of fewer opportunities to advance in the workplace or leaving the workforce altogether. Labor participation in the U.S. has changed, especially for women: in 1950, 33.9% of women were in the workforce, but in 2015, it increased to around 61.9%. While giving parents time off to take care of newly-adopted children or newborns has always been desirable, women have not always been employed at such high rates. As a result, more women are facing the choice of leaving their 3-month old children (at the oldest) in daycare to return to work, with some ultimately deciding to leave their employment altogether because the provisions for leave are too small . A large majority of homemakers are women, and 84% of women that are able to work cited family responsibilities as a factor contributing to their decision to not return to the workforce in a 2014 poll. If the cost of buying childcare outweighs the income from working, then the incentives to remain in the workforce would decrease. The issue lies in the fact that the prime years for women to advance their careers and their prime childbearing years overlap heavily. Women without childcare support in the early stages are thus forced to make a choice between building their career and building their family. For the U.S. economy, this means that the large number of women choosing to leave the workforce take their labor power with them and the U.S. loses out on the economic contributions these parents would have made.

Since the FMLA, the FAMILY Act has been the biggest policy push, though it has not been passed yet: it proposed 12 weeks of partial income for certain family and medical reasons for all companies of any size, paid for in part by payroll contributions. The positives of paid leave mean that parents would be able to boost savings and income looking forward instead of facing weeks of living without their regular salary. It would boost retention rates of women in the workforce instead of forcing new mothers to choose to leave the workforce to take care of family responsibilities. This leave also applies to new fathers – they would have more latitude to support caregiving in the early stages as well, improving overall outcomes for the average American family. On the campaign trail, President Trump tested some policies with the public, touting a family leave plan that would provide for 6 weeks of partially-paid family leave – it did not seem clear where the funding for this plan would originate from, but at the least his speech indicates that there is some possibility for positive movement in this area.

Some concerns about national mandates for parental leave include that having strict mandates on only maternal leave could have negative effects on the women who would be taking advantage of it. Other effects include employers intentionally reducing pay for expecting mothers in anticipation of a lengthy absence. Parental leave that focuses only on mothers may lead to undue hiring discrimination against women who may possibly become mothers, and thus negatively affect career outcomes for women even before they step foot into an office. For these reasons, and to encourage new fathers to be more involved in childcare at early stages, generic parental leave with flexibility for both parents to parcel out the leave as they wish is my hope for future policies at the state or national level. An unnecessarily narrowed policy that only provides for women discriminates against fathers and may come with unanticipated downsides for the women it should be helping.

The onus of paying for paid leave is heavily weighted towards the employers themselves – this is the primary obstacle that stops most conservatives from supporting paid parental leave on a national scale. However, the outcomes are trending positively, with more localities and states calling for positive changes to parental leave in the form of longer leave or enacting paid or partially-paid periods of leave. The battle for change will likely have to start from the bottom up, with each state ironing out the details and enacting change at the micro-level before the national culture can begin to see change. In the end, making better provisions for parental leave is imperative in that it will better support parents and allow them to have more choices, instead of forcing them to choose between their family and their careers.