Here’s What No Paid Parental Leave in the U.S. Looks Like
(Bloomberg) -- The failure this week — again — for the U.S. to adopt paid leave policies for parents has brought a flood of stories about the horrors of managing jobs after childbirth.
The cobbling together of vacation days to cover just a few weeks of leave. Trouble finding child-care centers that will take newborns. Moms still recovering from postpartum surgeries struggling to take care of kids while their partner had to work.
I’ve been reporting on the lack of paid family leave for years, and have heard dozens of these anecdotes. The one that sticks with me came from a Brooklyn defense attorney named Martha, who had a child in 2016. (Martha asked her last name not to be used for the story to protect her privacy.)
At the time, she was working at a small, private law firm that didn’t have an official maternity leave policy; it had never needed one because its attorneys had always been male. The firm’s partners offered her a two-week “vacation” after she gave birth. Martha argued them up to four.
Four weeks after giving birth, a woman’s body hasn’t healed yet. Doctors don’t even schedule the routine postpartum check-up until six weeks; any earlier and most women are still actively bleeding. Newborns that young need to eat every two hours, which meant Martha was sleeping in one-hour increments between feedings. Breastfeeding led to an abscess from a clogged milk duct.
It ruptured, and Martha underwent emergency surgery the day before she was scheduled to go back to work. She returned to the law firm with a drainage tube attached to her chest and gingerly changed the bandages in her office between meetings. “I can talk about it now,” Martha told me when I interviewed her earlier this year, “but at the time I was in a state of trauma. It was truly awful.”
The Biden administration’s initial proposal to have 12 weeks of paid family leave was whittled down to four and then abandoned completely after facing opposition from key members of Congress. The stories pouring out on social media and from people like Martha underscore what a devastating blow that is in a country that already is far behind the rest of the world in supporting new parents. The U.S. is one of only seven nations that doesn’t provide paid maternity leave.
The assumption seems to be that the way the country does things now works well enough, most women and their employers figure something out. But they don’t. In the absence of a formal law, only 5% of low-wage hourly workers have access to paid leave. Even people like Martha, with advanced degrees and successful careers, are still struggling to get by.
At universities, untenured professors are often excluded from whatever formal leave policies are in place. To get around this, some female academics try to time things so they give birth during the summer, when they have a few months off. But not all pregnancies are planned. Sometimes babies come early. Last year a professor at an elite private university told me her department chair expected her to return to teaching a week after giving birth. A planetary geologist wrote a research abstract while lying on her living room couch, crying, because she’d had severe tearing during delivery and it hurt too much to sit.
The standard explanation for the lack of paid leave in the U.S. is that it’s too onerous for small businesses. Sure, a company as big and wealthy as Netflix Inc. can offer new parents up to a year off work, but if a small mom-and-pop joint only has a handful of employees, the argument goes, how can it be expected to afford to let one take weeks or months off, paid?
It’s a fair criticism. That’s why every other industrialized nation has a federal policy in which a percentage of a new parent’s wages are covered by the government, relieving small businesses of an otherwise unmanageable burden.
These other countries aren’t just doing this to be nice. They get something out of it, too. There’s an abundance of economic research showing that women with access to paid leave are more likely to return to work after they have a baby, boosting a country’s labor force and economy. Health studies reveal that babies are more likely to be breastfed because their mothers can spend more time at home with them. Parents with access to leave are more likely to take them to doctor’s visits and get them immunized on time. There’s even a decades-long longitudinal study of Norway, which implemented its first paid leave policy in 1978, showing that mothers with paid leave were less likely to smoke or suffer from depression, even years after they gave birth.
In other words, by focusing only on the dollar amount of a paid leave policy, the U.S. is missing out on a myriad of positive benefits.
Congressional Democrats have tried to address this in other ways before. In every session of Congress since 2013, New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand has introduced a bill that would create a national program offering new parents 12 weeks of paid leave at 66% their salary. But it has languished in subcommittee and never come to a vote.
This issue has been left unresolved for so long that entire generations of American children have grown up, become parents and even grandparents, and the U.S. government has failed to act. Maybe it never will.
©2021 Bloomberg L.P.