If You're Going to Support Moms, Paid Family Leave is the Place to Start
Mother’s Day is all about celebrating moms. Appreciating moms. Acknowledging the invisible work moms do to keep things — all the things — from falling apart. Simply put, Mother’s Day is about supporting moms who spend all day, every day supporting everyone else.
But while a fancy brunch or a spray of spring blooms are nice, ultimately, they’re just that — nice. Not supportive. Not capable of giving us the tools and resources we need to continue doing all the things.
What moms really need this Mother’s Day is simple: a national family paid leave policy that acknowledges the reality of being a working mom in 2022. And unfortunately, right now, in the United States — despite overwhelming public support for a national paid leave program — we don’t have it.
Paid Family Leave: Where We Are Today
In the United States, the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) of 1993 serves as the only national legislation directing leave. Under the FMLA, certain employers are required to provide employees up to twelve weeks of unpaid leave with job protection. Unfortunately, fewer than 60 percent of workers are protected by FMLA. Even those who are protected often can’t take advantage of the leave because they can’t afford to lose twelve weeks of pay.
What that means is that most U.S. workers are subject to a “boss lottery,” Vicki Shabo, Senior Fellow, paid leave policy expert at New America, told SheKnows. “Whether [folks] have access to paid leave really depends on whether their employer chooses to offer it, unless they live in a handful of states. That means that tens of millions don’t have paid family leave when they need it.”
Without access to paid family leave, folks must fund their own leave by borrowing from friends, going into debt, or relying on public assistance — which isn’t always available.
Paid Family Leave: Where We Could Go
COVID thrust the need for paid leave into the spotlight. In response to the virus, lawmakers enacted the Families First Coronavirus Response Act (FFCRA) which, among other things, required employers to offer two weeks of paid sick leave. The legislation was a step in the right direction. However, the protections under the FFCRA expired at the end of 2020, leaving most workers without support.
Unsurprisingly the workers most impacted by this systemic failure were moms. The number of women in the workforce took a “huge nosedive,” according to Tina Sherman, Senior Campaign Director for Maternal Justice at MomsRising. Sherman told SheKnows, “[T]he fact that we didn’t have policies in place means women and caregivers bore the brunt of lack of paid family leave.”
In November 2021, the House of Representatives passed the Build Back Better Act, which would provide four weeks of partially-paid family and medical leave for most employees. The policy would apply to all employers and would cover all employees without regard to their role or time spent in that role.
While four weeks still leaves much to be desired (particularly for moms recovering from childbirth), the act does push policy forward in two important ways. One, by providing a more inclusive definition of family — including extended family and “any other individual who is related by blood or affinity and whose association with the individual is equivalent of a family relationship” — and two, by making leave accessible to self-employed workers.
Unfortunately, as of this writing, the legislation was stalled in the Senate, even though public support for paid leave is “overwhelmingly popular,” notes Shabo.
“Outside of D.C. politics, paid leave is clearly a front and center priority,” says Jocelyn Frye, president of the National Partnership for Women & Families. “The groundswell of support for paid leave has been striking.”
Paid Family Leave Benefits All
No doubt part of the reason the policy has stalled in the Senate is due to political talking points surrounding the legislation — namely, that paid leave is expensive or anti-business.
Those ideas couldn’t be further from the truth. “The myth that paid leave is bad for business has been disproven time and again,” says Shabo. She noted that we have lots of data from states like California, New Jersey, and New York, where workers have access to paid leave and in those states, businesses have a good experience.
The benefits of paid family leave are well-documented. An analysis of the Build Back Better plan found that with access to paid leave, the economy could see true growth. When women have access to paid leave, both the economy and families flourish, according to Shabo, who highlighted how women’s labor force participation increases when paid leave is offered, as does the employer’s bottom line (and the bottom line of the entire country).
In fact, it’s when access to paid leave isn’t available that the costs add up. “If women go back before they have physically healed from childbirth, they put themselves at risk for postpartum hemorrhage, impaired c-section wound healing, and extreme exhaustion,” Dr. Jessica Madden, a board-certified pediatrician and neonatologist and Medical Director of Aeroflow Breastpumps, wrote in an email to SheKnows. “It can also impact their ability to breastfeed (which affects the long-term health of both mom and baby). Mental and emotional consequences of going back to work too soon include risk of postpartum mental health problems, including depression, OCD, and anxiety, extreme stress, and feelings of guilt about having to leave one’s baby too soon.”
Putting aside the incalculable cost of those consequences on families, there’s certainly a real-time cost for businesses — whether it’s the cost of hiring and training someone new after losing a skilled employee, or losing out on quality candidates.
“The cost to the economy [of not having paid leave] really does measure out to be more than any cost of a program proposed,” Gail Zuagar, senior communications specialist for the National Partnership for Women & Families, told SheKnows in a roundtable discussion.
How To Support Paid Family Leave
By and large, experts agree that the best way to support paid leave is to share your story with lawmakers and policymakers.
“When you look at who’s in power and who has decision-making capabilities, it’s not folks who have needed to take [paid leave],” Sherman notes, which is why it’s particularly important for “real families to share what they are going through.”
Frye echoed Sherman’s idea, highlighting that the “[m]ore those stories are out, more public demand for change becomes clear.”
Stories like this one, shared with MomsRising by Susan from Pennsylvania, who wrote, “Not having access to paid leave forced me to liquidate my retirement assets so I could care for my newborn.”
There is no doubt that folks shouldn’t have to sacrifice their tomorrow just to scrape by today.
Let’s Not Forget The Moms
When discussing paid leave, it’s easy to get lost in the policy details and extensive studies outlining why paid leave is good for business and the economy. The fact is, paid leave is more than all of that. It is, at the core, an equity policy, according to Frye.
“What often gets missed in the conversation about paid leave is its equity purpose. At the heart of it is an idea that women need access to paid leave in particular because otherwise they often are treated unfairly in the workplace or disadvantaged simply because they are more likely to have care responsibilities and be perceived differently because of those caregiving responsibilities.”
Paid leave is more than a “nice perk.” It’s an essential piece of our economic infrastructure. More than that, it’s a crucial aspect of supporting moms — today, and every day.
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