New parents need paid leave


Annika Agni and Maya Nayak

Nearly one in four women returned to work within just two weeks of delivery, and seven in ten men took ten days or less of parental leave (US Department of Labor). These statistics, though concerning, are unsurprising.

Though the Federal Employee Paid Leave Act—which mandates 12 weeks of paid parental leave for federal employees—garnered bipartisan support when legislators signed it into law in December 2019, Congress has yet to ensure paid leave for the vast majority of parents. With both parents employed in nearly half of two-parent households, as the Pew Research center found, the federal government must take action to provide paid family leave for all Americans.

The United States’s current policies on parental leave disproportionately burden marginalized families. Many cannot afford the 12 weeks of unpaid leave guaranteed by the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA). Not everyone benefits from these minimal protections; the FMLA only applies to employers with 50 or more employees, leaving small business employees behind. The FMLA also further perpetuates racial disparities; Black mothers in California took on average one week of maternity leave while white mothers took seven weeks off (Rossin-Slater et. al).

Paid parental time off shows promise in rectifying the issue. When California became the first among a handful of states to enact a paid parental time-off policy in 2002, both Black and white women were able to take an average of seven weeks off (Rossin-Slater et al.). In following California’s lead, the US can ensure that all parents—regardless of their socioeconomic status, employer, and race—can take care of their kids.

Paid parental leave can also have a lasting positive impact on families. According to a 2011 study of over 100 countries, paid parental leave was found to decrease infant mortality rates by 10% (Heymann et al.). Another study found paid maternity leave was linked to increased immunizations; the children of mothers given paid time off were 25.3% more likely to receive the measles vaccine (Berger et al.).

The benefits of paid parental leave extend even beyond children. Mothers who have access to more paid maternity leave have significantly better mental health. One 2015 study found that women who had better maternity leave policies were 18% less likely to be depressed 30 years later (Avendano et al.). And, according to the US Department of Labor, longer paternity leaves result in more bonding between the father and child.

The rest of the world has already recognized all these benefits of paid parental leave. The US is the only country out of the world’s 41 richest countries that does not mandate paid time off for new parents (UNICEF). We lag behind most of the world; out of all the United Nations member states, only the US, New Guinea, Suriname, and a few island countries in the South Pacific Ocean lack paid parental leave (NPR).

Canada, for example, guarantees new parents up to 15 weeks of paid leave. Either parent can earn 55% of their average weekly insurable wage (capped at a certain income) for 35 weeks after a child is born or adopted, and mothers can even take up to 63 weeks of unpaid leave.

Paid parental leave must be a right for all Americans. Parents should not have to leave their children just days after birth to go back to work; nobody should have to choose between a steady income and taking care of their child. Paid parental leave should be a right, not a luxury. Given all of its benefits for both parents and children, the government should prioritize mandating paid parental leave. In its current state, the United States is far from the “city upon a hill” that American exceptionalism would have us believe; it would do our legislators well to look around.