The United States is the only developed country that doesn’t provide paid parental leave. So what?

Conservatives today say they support marriage, children and the “traditional family” structure. But while they are quick to talk about issues of marriage definitions and abortion, they often do not discuss some of the most pressing policy issues for families, namely the impact of labor laws on parents. This issue is a new hot topic as San Francisco made history this year in becoming the first city to require employers to provide paid maternity leave.

But nationally in the US, the current family leave policy encourages the belief that a woman must choose between a career and family. The policy also disproportionately impacts parents from lower economic situations. As Christians, we should seek to enact policy change and further social discussions that strengthen family structures for children, mothers and fathers.

The Current Public Policy System

Despite high numbers of mothers in the workforce, the United States also has significantly less legal protection for parental leave. Up until 1993, a woman’s access to maternity leave was subject to her state and her employer. Some companies chose to offer job-secure maternity leave as a policy or due to association with a workers’ union. Some states also passed laws that obliged employers to offer leave, lasting anywhere between 4-18 weeks to those who met pre-existing conditions (Berger, Hill and Waldfogel 2005:31).

In 1993, the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) was passed, which was the first federal protection of family leave, that provided time away from work for new parents, those with family issues and medical emergencies. FMLA provided the right (for those who qualified) to maternity leave with job security. Qualifications limited the affected employers to those who had 50 or more employees, thereby eliminating small businesses, restricting the eligible employees to those who had worked at least 1,250 hours in the past year (Berger, Hill and Waldfogel 2005:31).

While this did increase access to maternity leave for some, only 60% of employees in the private sector work for companies that are impacted by FMLA and 40% of employees are still not covered (Cantor et al., 2001). In 2000, the Department of Labor survey found that only 16.5% of qualifying employees used FMLA leave, despite their eligibility. Those who drew upon FMLA were most likely to be married women with one or more children already at home. Of those surveyed, 51.4% of the women had leave periods lasting less than 10 workdays (Georgetown University Law Center 2010:2).

For those who did not choose to use their FMLA accommodations, whether for maternity leave and childcare or for the other family and medical protections, the most common reason was a fear for financial and job security.

Because FMLA only provides unpaid leave, it may not matter to new parents if the job is protected since they simply cannot afford to take time off work.

Therefore, this policy excludes parents of low socioeconomic status and single parents who are the sole breadwinners. There are also significant disparities in access to FMLA granted leave. Given the restrictions on who can qualify, access to paid leave is especially low among Hispanics, workers with lower education and lower wages. This creates a benefits gap that extends even beyond the gender differences.

Even when families are eligible for leave, it is less likely that both parents will do so, given financial concerns. Therefore, one of the most significant problems with FMLA is its lack of accessibility which limits its application to only those of higher socioeconomic status, likely middle class married women. Yet another difficulty is that many employees are not made aware of their FMLA benefits (Berggren 2008:313) despite the fact that employers are required by the law to sufficiently educate their workers on their legal benefits.

Historical and Social Roots Behind American Leave Policies

The way that public policy surrounding parental leave is gendered in the United States relates to historical and social trends around the dichotomy of “separate spheres” in which men are expected to occupy the secular workforce and women are considered to have a greater domestic responsibility (Wade, Ferree 2015:202). Many scholars argue that FMLA is tied to broader policies surrounding social security that stem from 1930s and The New Deal. One of the key public policies tied to The New Deal was the Social Security Act of 1935, which helped to solidify gendered realities surrounding the separate spheres mentality. Scholar Wisensale (2001:33-34) writes that:

the Social Security Act was structured under the family wage system. That is, the ‘breadwinner-homemaker’ family, in which the husband worked and earned enough money to support his wife who stayed home to raise the kids, was not only recognized, it was rewarded.

One way this was enacted was through SSA policies such as the Aid to Dependent Children, which encouraged women whose husbands were deceased or not present to remain at home with children in exchange for a government subsidy. Despite the many benefits SSA provided for, such as setting minimum wage hours and rules for overtime pay, many women were still excluded from these vocational benefits due to the fact that certain jobs did not receive coverage (Berggren 2008:319). Women were more highly represented in fields of housework and agriculture, for example, and so were often excluded from such progressive-era policies.

The gendered effects of The New Deal extended beyond the 1930s and into the 40s as women began to engage more widely in the workforce which was formerly inhabited by men. Policies were established such as the Lanham Act which provided federal grants for states to organize childcare so that women could work more easily from the home (Berggren 2008:319). While this was a significant policy that also paved the way for FMLA, it was not renewed after World War 2.

Later in the 40s, women were encouraged to give their jobs up to the men returning from war who were now expected to resume their places in the masculine-defined secular labor force. The historical trends surrounding SSA came to represent a social understanding of a woman’s limited vocational role, which is perhaps one of the reasons why maternity leave was not offered sooner and with more benefits in the United States. With deeply-set expectations that a woman’s primary job is domestic care, any policy supporting maternity leave would be seen as unnecessary—a woman should either be a mother and stay at home or participate in the masculine workforce and expect no job stability or pay for maternity leave.

International Policies on Parental Leave

Among all other developed countries, the United States is the only one that does not provide governmental protection for paid maternity leave (International Labor Organization 2014:26). In addition, 1 in 5 American women list their arrangements for leave as simply quitting their jobs. India offers 12 weeks paid maternity leave, China protects 14, Brazil has 17 weeks, and France has 16 paid weeks. Arguably one of the more progressive societies when it comes to change for parental leave is the United Kingdom, which allows for 50 weeks of leave, 37 of which is paid at 90% income (Peachey 2015).

A relatively new policy in the UK enacted in 2015 allows a new mother and father to take leave both in turns and together, and to have the right under the law to request accommodating work hours from their employer. Not only does this provide greater financial security and job stability, but it addresses the gender barrier by acknowledging the role a father has in child raising, too. In the UK, a woman can be a mother and a career woman, in the same way that a man can be a father and still work. The policy applies only to working parents, including those who are adopting, same sex, co-habiting and couples bringing up a baby from a prior relationship (Peachey 2015).

I believe the best policies are ones that encourage the shared responsibility of parenthood. 

Economically, there are several benefits to a paid leave program in the United States. Research has shown that access to maternity leave increases the chance of parents (especially mothers) returning to work and continuing in their careers. When we have less job retention for those coming off of parental leave, employers have to recruit and train new individuals to fill the jobs that are now empty. Parental leave policies also lead to greater health and care for the children in question.

Analysis of paid parental leave in Europe has found a correlation to paid leave programs and better child health.

When parents have the financial stability and job security necessary to take time to be with young children, they are better able to monitor health and finish nursing and secure maternal-child attachment. Studies suggest that an early return to work without post-birth parental leave is related to a reduction in breastfeeding and infant immunizations, and an increase in cases of behavioral issues among children, particularly for those whose mothers immediately returned to full time positions (Berger 2005:30).

In the United States, the Family and Medical Leave Act has been leaving behind mothers and fathers who seek to balance family values with vocational pursuits. The current policy reflects historical and social trends relating to gender, which stem from traditional expectations represented in the New Deal and the Social Security Act. When in contrast with international gender-egalitarian policies relating to family leave, FMLA has low pay equity with high restrictions for eligibility and limited schedule flexibility.

Instead, parental leave policies provide payment and job security to both mothers and fathers. These policies also strengthen family-focused views on parenthood, combat the separate spheres mentality, encourage job retention and provide for the health and betterment of the children. With parental-leave reform in the United States, we can stop leaving behind the mothers and fathers in the workforce who seek to balance family responsibilities with economic and vocational roles.

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Due to the extensive list of sources, please contact the author for a bibliography should you need it.


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