America needs to stop being ‘exceptional’ on paid leave
From the second a child is born, a parent’s entire world changes. Everything revolves around the new baby and there is nothing they wouldn’t sacrifice for it. Yet, within days of bringing a new life into the world, mothers and fathers in the United States are not thinking about their child, they’re thinking about getting back to work.
According to one study, 1 in 4 new mothers in the United States returns to work within two weeks of giving birth. There’s even less leeway for new fathers who are punching the clock almost immediately rather than caring for their spouse and child. Then there are the workers who stay on the job through health crises or find themselves buried in medical bills after taking unpaid leave.
Call it American exceptionalism. Virtually every nation on the planet, large and small, rich and poor, requires paid maternity leave, except the United States. Every industrialized nation has paid family medical leave, except the United States.
It’s truly exceptional. The US is one of the wealthiest countries in the world, with the most expensive health care system, yet our infant mortality rate is higher than any other comparable nation and 40% higher than the European Union average. A 2016 study found that a single extra month of paid maternal leave reduces that rate by 13%, which would save a significant amount of the 22,000 babies who die in this country each year before their first birthday. Americans have the least access and the worst health outcomes compared to other OECD countries.
But at least Americans have the freedom of choice: a paycheck or their health, financial stability, or taking care of their families.
Given the option of paid leave, an overwhelming majority of Americans across the political spectrum would rather care for themselves or a loved one and continue to have the support of a steady income. A recent survey of likely voters found 84% backed a national paid family and medical leave policy. That included 96% of Democrats, 81% of independents, and 74% of Republicans.
It would be one thing if political leaders suddenly realized that the failure to provide leave was unjust, unworkable, and cruel. But it’s been known for years. It was obvious in the early 1990s that employees needed time off for the birth of a child, adoption, a medical emergency, or to care for a sick spouse or parent. In 1993, most workers became eligible to take unpaid leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA). If they could afford to forgo their paycheck, they were guaranteed up to 12 weeks of leave without losing their job or access to company health care.
Now, almost 30 years after FMLA, fewer than one-quarter of private-sector employees have access to paid medical and family leave. Many companies reserve those benefits to top-level employees, which means the people who need it most are the least likely to have it. Some of the country’s largest private-sector employers, including Walmart and McDonald’s, only started offering paid family and medical leave to hourly workers in the last five years. It wasn’t until 2019 that Congress finally approved 12 weeks of paid family leave for federal workers.
Unfortunately, broader attempts to enact paid family leave came up short. Lawmakers have introduced legislation session after session but the bill has never made it over the finish line. Despite its popularity and near-universal support among Democrats, paid leave was almost stripped out of the Biden administration’s Build Back Better program last fall. In an attempt to shore up more support, House and Senate Democrats wound up scaling back their proposal for paid family leave from 12 weeks to only four. Four weeks quickly became zero when lawmakers were unable to resolve their differences and abandoned the plan altogether.
At the end of the day, traditional efforts to pass this critical protection have failed and the United States remains behind the rest of the world. Families are suffering because of it. Legislation to mandate paid family and medical leave for all American workers is long overdue, and we can collectively bargain for it in 2022 when we unionize as voters.
Part of the American Union’s commitment to promoting the general welfare includes 18 weeks of paid family leave for medical emergencies and caretaking responsibilities. The American Union’s Blueprint for a Better America outlines specific legislation to improve the health, happiness, and prosperity of working people by empowering them to take time away from work to care for a family member. This proposal is separate from the American Union Jobs Program, which will provide $1,300 universal basic income (UBI) each month to all adults. Unlike a UBI, paid family leave would only apply to people who are formally engaged in paid work. For example, unpaid caretakers would not qualify for paid leave, but would always receive their UBI, and people taking paid leave would not see any reduction in their UBI.
The health impacts of implementing paid leave policies are immense, particularly for infants. By providing 18 weeks of paid leave, the US could bring its infant mortality rate down to the European Union average and potentially save the lives of up to 9,000 babies every single year. Sick and older adults could also have the option to recover at home, rather than being institutionalized in potentially life-threatening congregate care settings.
The provisions are crafted around a bill introduced several times by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., called the FAMILY Act. The legislation provides universal paid family and medical leave for all employees — full-time, part-time, or self-employed — at any size company. Instead of the 12 weeks offered in the Senate bill, the American Union legislation delivers 18 weeks or 90 paid days of caretaking per year. During that time, workers will be able to take time with a newborn baby, a newly adopted child, tend to a personal medical need, or provide care for a parent, spouse, or domestic partner who is undergoing a serious medical event. A person’s legal status with a partner doesn’t matter; if they support each other like a family, they’ll be treated like a family under the law.
Workers would be entitled to two-thirds of their monthly paycheck, calculated according to their highest annual reported income in the last three years. The federal program would be funded through a minor 0.25% payroll tax on the employer and employee. That means for every $10 earned, a mere 25 cents would be withheld. For an employee earning $50,000 a year, that would amount to $2.50 per week, with a payout of up to $12,500 over 18 weeks in the event of a family or medical emergency.
There is strong evidence from states, the laboratories of democracy, that paid medical and family leave works. Nine states have adopted the program, including California, Washington, New Jersey, and Washington DC. Arguments that forced paid leave will cost businesses more don’t bear out. Several studies of California’s law, which has been in place since 2004, showed that employers in the state saved money by having paid leave. Companies spend less money retaining valuable workers than having them quit and having to train new employees.
Obviously, these benefits haven’t been persuasive enough for the majority of businesses to provide paid leave on their own. It must be demanded as part of a better social contract and included in a larger legislative package to end poverty, end mass incarceration, and end the endless wars. When the Blueprint for a Better America lands on the President’s desk, the United States will join the rest of the industrialized world, and no longer be an exception.
Learn more about how we can cooperate to pass paid family leave at AnAmericanUnion.com