Now is the moment we’ve been waiting for: It’s time to pass paid family and medical leave
As a pediatrician, I often see health inequities play out in my exam room long before they are addressed by legislators; sometimes before legislators are even aware of them. Today, Chairman Richard Neal (D-Mass.) of the House Ways and Means Committee introduced a bill offering comprehensive paid leave for all U.S. workers, following a hearing last week that served as a rare example of real people impacted by a real policy gap talking directly to the legislators who could do something about it.
As a working parent myself, and as a pediatrician who has seen families in my practice confront the impossible choice of whether to provide for their family or stay home to care for their child, I am encouraged that we have meaningful federal legislation to step in and help. Now just might be the moment we’ve been waiting for to finally pass federal legislation to authorize paid family and medical leave.
This new proposal would provide workers with up to 12 weeks of partial income when they take leave due to pregnancy, the birth of a child, the adoption of a child, or to care for a child or other family member with a serious health condition, among other reasons.
The benefits of this kind of paid leave are so well documented, it’s astounding that the United States remains the only industrialized country in the world with no national paid leave. Bonding with your baby in those first few weeks of life helps establish healthy relationships and actually increases the likelihood that parents will fully vaccinate their babies. This effect is even stronger for families who live in households below the poverty line.
And our lack of meaningful paid leave has led to adverse outcomes, too: maternity leave of less than six weeks is associated with fourfold higher odds of failure to establish breastfeeding. Breastfeeding is proven to have medical and psychological benefits for both mother and baby, but is often a journey that can require time, something I have personally experienced. This is not a luxury provided to women who have to return to work so soon after a baby is born or risk lost wages or even a lost job.
Parents of children with special health care needs, even when they have access to some degree of paid leave, still often do not receive enough time or wage replacement to be able to effectively take that time off. Caring for a child — especially in those early months — is an all-consuming job. Navigating a new role of parent while also managing a child’s health condition requires time, and supporting a child with chronic complex needs requires job security. Right now in this country, we offer parents neither, only adding to their stress.
Universal paid leave is also an equity issue. One study shows that while about 50 percent of White women have access to paid parental leave, only 41 percent of Black women and 33 percent of Hispanic women do. Access to paid leave is also unsurprisingly lower among families in low-income households. A lack of paid leave is yet another inequity that contributes to the health disparities my patients of color and their families face because it becomes harder for them to access care and support when they need it. If we do not pass universal paid family and medical leave, these preventable disparities will widen.
The American Academy of Pediatrics recently joined 27 medical and public health groups to support the FAMILY Act, on which Chairman Neal’s new proposal is based, for all of these reasons. But it’s the voices of the women who testified in Congress this week that stick with me. Like Joy Spencer, who said, “It was terrifying having a newborn and no income; we struggled with basics like rent and food. I wanted to work, but there was no affordable child care in my community. Parents sit on waitlists for years! Like many parents, I was caught in a Catch-22: I wasn’t eligible for many child care assistance programs because I didn’t have a job, but I couldn’t get a job because I didn’t have child care.” I have heard similar words over and over from my own patients for decades.
No parent deserves to be put in this position. Now is the moment: I thank Chairman Neal for his efforts to try and right this wrong with his new proposal, and I urge Congress to pass a comprehensive paid leave policy right away. Such a simple investment will make a real difference for children and families.
Lee Savio Beers (MD, FAAP) is president of American Academy of Pediatrics.
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