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100 million more births – still no national paid leave

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Every year in May, we commemorate our mothers and mother-figures for all they do every single day. Still, new mothers in the U.S. are forced to choose between priceless moments with their infants or quickly returning to work. We can do better to honor them than merely a symbolic holiday. By guaranteeing paid parental leave nationally, we can ensure every new parent has the opportunity to take paid time off in the weeks following the birth or adoption of a child. 

The first weeks and months of raising a child are exhausting. When new parents are also juggling work commitments, it can be completely overwhelming. Surveys suggest that one in four employed women in the U.S. return to work within two weeks of childbirth, while most new dads use under two weeks of parental leave. This reality is at odds with the advantages of paid time off, including: better health outcomes, sustained household income levels, and family bonding

Other countries recognize these benefits by guaranteeing paid parental leave for all new parents, regardless of employment status. But in the U.S, paid parental leave is not guaranteed nationally. What’s more, progress has stagnated despite the overwhelming popularity of lasting national paid leave expansions.

The most recent federal law to permanently implement parental leave provisions for both the public and private sectors—the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA)— was passed in 1993. It stipulated that employers with 50 or more workers provide 12 weeks of unpaid leave annually. Workers can apply those weeks to maternity and paternity leave, but the absence of an income replacement limits its use. Even a couple of unpaid weeks at home are a financial challenge for many, rendering this option untenable. 

Over a hundred million births have occurred since the enactment of the FMLA, yet no permanent federal statute on paid parental leave has passed that all parents can access. Paid leave is frequently left up to the discretion of individual employers, rendering these benefits as a limited privilege rather than a right.

A patchwork of state programs has been implemented, resulting in twice as many private-sector workers with paid parental leave than a decade ago. However, three-quarters of workers in the country still lack access to paid family leave, and issues with existing programs limit use by lower-income parents

Notably, Congress did pass emergency paid leave measures early in the pandemic — a significant, albeit temporary, step in the direction of national paid leave. The Families First Coronavirus Response Act (FFCRA) extended paid leave to, among others, workers caring for children when childcare and school closures occurred in 2020. But the standards fell short of what families require. Access was difficult, and payments were often insufficient.

Policymakers do not seem to have learned from the FFCRA trial run. The Build Back Better Act contained paid leave provisions with an array of recognizable design problems. A simple, publicly administered plan was bypassed for a complex setup. A guaranteed baseline amount—essentially a paid leave “minimum wage”—was missing. Lower earners cannot afford to take off work without an adequate benefit level. Elected officials must address these flaws if they choose to revisit paid leave legislation.

The policy solution is straightforward: make paid family leave universally accessible and the benefits generous enough for all new parents to take time off work. 

Policymakers should enable all parents to spend at least 12 paid weeks at home with their newborns or newly adopted children. Enough funding should be provided for new parents to afford time at home without facing an income shock as a result. In other words, a sufficient percentage of income must be replaced and a baseline amount regardless of prior earnings must be ensured.

Benefit flexibility is also crucial. Families should be able to apply the benefits to whatever weeks after childbirth or adoption are preferred, as federal employees can do with their weeks of leave. Similarly, the total paid leave benefit should not be contingent on using all available weeks of eligibility. Parents should have the option to receive the full paid leave amount as a lump sum to decide what schedule is best for them.

The main challenge ahead is not the difficulty of implementing these suggestions; it is the political hurdle. Federal policymakers have an opportunity to do what has not been accomplished in the three decades since the FMLA: enact a paid parental leave program that all parents can utilize. The most recent 100 million births lacked permanent, national paid parental leave provisions. For the sake of the next 100 million births, officials must remedy this now. There’s no better way to celebrate motherhood than that.

Will Raderman is employment policy analyst at Niskanen Center.

Tags Family and Medical Leave Act national paid leave

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