Parental leave: what it is and how it’s changing

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Parental leave: what it is and how it’s changing

While I haven’t had a child yet, I know they’re a lot of work. They’re tiny, whiny, needy, and smelly. Plus, they’re insomniacs.

But I think the hardest part about having a child is not receiving the time, money, and respect you deserve as a new parent from your employer and government. When you leave the hospital, you need to be home with your baby to bond, feed, and cherish her. But, too often, time at home is cut short because new parents can’t afford to be away from work. (In the United States, family leave is vastly unpaid.) Many parents fear losing their positions, salaries, and health insurance benefits if they’re gone too long.

If you’re having a child, just had a child, or simply an American who thinks our family leave is absolutely abhorrent, I implore you to read on. To alleviate my fears and concerns and clear up some confusion, Julie Kashen, Policy Director of Make It Work, was kind enough to answer some of my questions about parental leave.

Full disclosure: When I started this article, I started out fully wanting and expecting to write about maternity leave. However, throughout my research, I soon realized – and Kashen quickly schooled me on – that focusing on paternal leave (or family leave) instead of just maternity leave is what’s really important.

"We talk about parental leave – or family leave – not just maternity leave because whether you’re a mom or a dad, being there when family needs you isn’t negotiable," says Kashen. "We should be able to be with our kids – and also our spouses, parents or any other close relative – when we’re needed, and we shouldn’t have to sacrifice a paycheck to do it."

PolicyGenius: Who has access to parental leave?

Julie Kashen: Today only 13 percent of people working in the United States have access to paid family leave through their employer. That means you have to win the employer lottery in most states in order to be able to afford to take time off to care for your new child. That’s why nearly one out of every four women who gives birth in the United States returns to work just two weeks later, and seventy percent of dads take ten days or less of leave when they welcome a new child into their family.

PG: I hear the acronym FMLA thrown around. What is that?

JK: The federal Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993 (FMLA) guarantees twelve weeks of job-protected leave to care for newborns and newly adopted children (as well as oneself or a family member, in the event of a serious illness). And although FMLA provides guaranteed job protection, it does not provide guaranteed promise of pay. In fact, companies can force their employees to use paid vacation and sick time to make up the difference. (Employees can also take unpaid leave or ask their employer to allow them to work from home. While the former is not always an option and the latter is not always ideal because you’re working instead of spending time with your baby, they are things to consider. Talk to your HR rep to see what your company permits and what’s best for you.)

However, when it comes to FMLA, it’s not always a bed of roses: 46 percent of people do not take leave (despite needing it) because they cannot afford it and forty percent are left uncovered because FMLA does not apply to them. FMLA only applies to you if your company has fifty or more employees within 75 miles of your workplace and you’ve worked for the same employer full time for the past year.

PG: If the United States has crappy family leave, every other country does, too, right?

JK: No, the United States is one of only four nations in the world that does not offer any paid maternity leave. (Papua New Guinea, Lesotho, and Swaziland don’t either.) Because only thirteen percent of people working in the United States have access to paid family leave through their employer, many parents in dual-earner households are faced with a difficult choice. Either one of them has to quit working and stay home to care for their child, or together they must pay for daily child care, slicing a huge chunk out of their income. For single parents, the challenge is even more daunting.

PG: While the federal government is dragging its feet, are any states getting it right?

JK: Fortunately, four states have made progress on this issue: California, New Jersey, and Rhode Island have all enacted state paid family leave laws, and New York’s new paid family leave law will go into effect very soon. Through their insurance programs, California and New Jersey provide six weeks of partial income replacement while Rhode Island provides four weeks. Once New York is fully phased in, it will provide twelve weeks of paid leave and guarantee job protection to all those who take it regardless of the size of their employer.

PG: Has parental leave improved over the years?

JK: Yes. From companies like Facebook and Netflix to the United States Navy and Google, organizations throughout the country are adopting leave policies for both moms and dads – from paid twelve weeks leave to paid one year leave. Although these policies aren't always perfect, it’s nice knowing that companies are trying something for families.

In 2014, the Department of Labor’s Women’s Bureau gave $500,000 in grants to aid states (including Massachusetts, Montana, and Rhode Island) in providing public funding for paid leave. And in 2015, the U.S. Department of Labor awarded $1.55 million in competitive grants to help cities and states conduct studies for paid leave programs.

In addition to the private companies and state and local momentum, there is also federal legislative improvement. In 2013, the FAMILY Act—a national program to provide people with twelve weeks of partial income when they take time off for FMLA purposes—was introduced. And in 2016, the FMLA was updated to ensure that more workers have access to job-protected leave to care for those they love.

And, of course, paid family leave has been a hot topic for the 2016 election. Throughout the presidential primaries we saw candidates talking about paid family leave because they knew it was important to voters. In fact, Make it Work’s polling found that 75 percent of voters say they support a package of work-family policies that includes paid family leave, paid sick days, and equal pay.

Bottom line: paid family leave is vital. You and your baby deserve some paid quality time together.

According to the Department of Labor, in addition to allowing you to properly bond with your baby and recover at home, paid family leave is important for four main reasons: it increases female labor force participation, leads to better child health outcomes, encourages men to take paternity leave and serve as caregivers, and increases worker retention and reduces turnover.

So what can you do to make paid family leave a reality? Make your voice heard! Vote, call your Congressperson, and speak up at work. Tell your community, state, and national leaders (and your boss!) that this issue matters and that if they want your support, vote, or contribution, they need to start making paid family leave a priority. And join a community – like Make It Work – to find like-minded individuals who feel the way you do and want to see change the way you do.