7 Real Parents Confirm: America’s Paid-Leave Policies for Parents Are the Worst in the World
by LINDSAY TUCKER -- MARCH 15, 2017 2:00 PM
It’s no secret that when it comes to childbearing in America, benefits for new parents are somewhat archaic. In July, at the Democratic National Convention, Senator Kirsten Gillibrand bemoaned the U.S. for being “the only industrialized nation” that doesn’t guarantee its workers paid family leave: “Many women can't even get a paid day off to give birth," she said. She wasn’t wrong.
According to the International Labor Organization, of the 170 countries for which data was available, the United States and Papua New Guinea are the only two nations without paid maternity leave. The (decades-old) Family Medical Leave Act of 1993—the most up-to-date federal legislation on the matter—merely provides some workers up to 12 weeks of unpaid, job-protected time off per year (excluding companies with fewer than 50 employees, among a host of other eligibility restrictions). President Trump, who famously called pregnancy an “inconvenience for a business,” surprised many when he addressed Congress last month and called to “ensure new parents…have paid family leave.” Unfortunately, Trump’s proposal, in its current form, allows birth mothers only six weeks’ leave at partial pay, making it tough on low-income families—while assuming that a month and a half is adequate time for all mothers to recover. Of course, limiting paid leave to moms also perpetuates the idea that women should bear the burden of child care.
While the U.S. has been reluctant to follow the rest of the world’s lead when it comes to supporting parents, a few states (namely, California, Rhode Island, New York, and New Jersey) have stepped up to mandate paid family leave. In what many heralded a victory last month, D.C. passed the Universal Paid-Leave Amendment Act, which would provide eight weeks of paid leave—at the employer's expense—to the District’s new parents. But sadly, just days later, the law was back on the chopping block when D.C. council chairman Phil Mendelson announced possible revisions in the face of opposition from local businesses. (Forgive us if we’re not super optimistic about the law being implemented as planned.) In light of recent debate—and the struggle millions of families face every day—we spoke with moms and dads across the country (plus one in Canada!) about their experience taking time off.
Sonya C., 32, Virginia; paid time off
I work in construction management, a very male dominated field. When I contacted HR about my first pregnancy, they had no idea what to do. Eventually I was told I would be paid for the sick and vacation time I had accrued—about 19 days—and the rest would be unpaid. I ended up taking only three weeks off; I didn’t actually make it through my 19 days of vacation! I worked at a small office, and they needed help, so by the end of week two my coworkers were emailing and calling me constantly. I was doing a lot of work from home, and they’d send people to pick me up for meetings because I’d had a C-section and couldn’t drive. It’s frustrating because I’ll never be equal in my field until men have to take off as much time as women [to raise families]. There’s never a risk that my male counterpart is going to take off six weeks for having a baby.
Emily C., 35, Massachusetts; unpaid leave of absence My water broke in school where I teach fourth grade. I took a "child-rearing leave," a year absence granted by the superintendent. By taking that, I was guaranteed a job (but not necessarily my job) when I came back to work. My husband owns his own business and couldn’t take time off. He worked from home for the first week, and then it was all me. I suffered from postpartum depression in secret for a good six months. I nursed for over a year, which was challenging: I was working with a lactation consultant while trying to finish report cards for my class. Sometimes I'd be lucky to get a shower in. I cried all the time. During my time off I was not paid. In fact, I paid out-of-pocket for my insurance so we could keep our health and dental care. I was very lucky that I could sacrifice a year’s salary. My colleagues who went back to work after eight to 12 weeks really struggled with guilt and stress and couldn’t keep nursing. A school schedule isn't exactly ideal for pumping every two to three hours—we barely have time to pee!
Scott H., 49, New Jersey; paid family leave
When my daughter was born, I was a partner at a law firm, and they didn’t have a set policy on paternity leave. I asked for a month off, and they gave it to me and paid me my full wages. My wife wasn’t working, and I wanted to be there for her and for our daughter, who came early and spent a week in the NICU—I was with them in the hospital for that week. It was a very scary time for both my wife and me, and I was glad I could be there to help and experience all the newness. It made things so much easier as we adjusted from single life to life with a new baby.
Tracy M., 35, Tennessee; disability plus unpaid family and medical leave
I started maternity leave a week before I went into labor because my midwife thought my contractions would start within the next 24 hours. She was wrong. I was working at a bookstore, and my boyfriend worked there too. We were full-time employees and both entitled to 12 weeks off through FMLA, but the store made us split the time. That was apparently the company’s policy! I took 10 weeks off, six of which were paid through my disability insurance, and he took two unpaid weeks. Because I started my leave a week before going into labor, I had only nine weeks off after my daughter was born. I felt ripped off. The problem is people are afraid to complain because they don’t want to be fired for simply saying they need more time to take care of themselves and their child.
Matt O., 34, Illinois; paid time off plus unpaid paternity leave
I’m one of those people who never call out sick, but I also knew my daughter was never going to be three months old again. As a vet in aquatic animal medicine, my company offered me 12 weeks off. I took only six. I had two weeks of PTO available, so four weeks went unpaid, which put a bit of a strain on us, but it was still totally worth it. At home I overlapped two weeks with my wife so she could show me the ropes and so we could spend time together as a new family. I’ve been telling everyone, I truly wish more dads had the opportunity to take paternity leave and would take it. I’m not sure if there’s a stigma against it in our society, but it gave me a newfound respect for all the moms out there. The amount of work that goes into raising kids is so underappreciated. If more men took paternity leave, we wouldn't be having this discussion about why women need paid leave.
Susan H., 39, Manitoba; Canadian employment insurance maternity and parental benefits
As a Canadian, the different attitudes in the U.S. about paid maternity leave amaze me.
I took a full year off for both of my kids and received 55 percent of my wages. How a mother is supposed to go back to work after only six weeks is beyond me. My body wouldn't have been healed—I had two C-sections! You’re not supposed to lift anything over 10 pounds for the first six weeks, never mind be fully active. I was able to enjoy being home and focus on getting accustomed to our new life. I was able to make sure the baby was sleeping well and would be socialized enough so that going back to work wouldn't be traumatic for either of us. [After a year] both my babies were weaned, and I was ready to go back to work.
Cynthia M., 29, Oregon; paid maternity leave
I was lucky. Apple has an amazing maternity leave program! I was paid my full wages for 16 weeks. I took a month off before my due date and 12 weeks after I gave birth, all paid, and then I chose to take an additional four weeks of unpaid time. Even so, I decided to leave the company before my unpaid leave was up. I wanted to stay home with my son and pursue my graduate degree. I was very lucky to get the benefits I did, but paid family leave in America is a joke. Sure, there are a few states that provide pay through insurance programs, but plenty of parents have to use their vacation time, forgo wages, or go right back to work. As one of the richest nations in the world, I think we can do better to support new families and future generations.