Paid Parental Leave: The Status of Women 50 Years Later

logoFifty years ago the President’s Commission on the Status of Women recommended that paid maternity leave be provided to improve conditions for working women. While the 1993 Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA) was an important step in improving access to leave for new parents, the United States is still without a federal maternity or family leave statute. This month, the Women’s Bureau at the Department of Labor released a full paper series commemorating the 50th Anniversary of American Women: Report of the President’s Commission on the Status of Women. As part of this series, the Institute of Women’s Policy Research (IWPR) prepared a paper that reviews data on the benefits of paid parental leave from the perspectives of individuals, families, employers, and the economy overall.

The report found that paid family and medical leave programs can have significant benefits to individuals, to businesses, and communities.

Economic Benefits

  • Improved Labor Force Attachment:
    • Women who are offered paid leave are more likely to return to the labor force in the year after they give birth than women who are not offered paid leave. Additionally, paid leave has been shown to have a positive effect on post-birth work outcomes.
  • Costs and Benefits to Firms:
    • Paid leave leads to negligible costs to employers in terms of temporary employee replacement costs or overtime paid to existing employees and has much greater potential gains in terms of employee morale and productivity.
  • Expands Economic Growth:
    • Paid leave can lead to increased labor force participation, increased fertility rates, and reduced spending on public assistance. Family friendly policies can help push the economy towards gender equality in the labor force, therefore mitigating the effects of a shrinking, aging workforce and increasing GDP.

Health Benefits

  • Increases initiation and length of breastfeeding:
    • Breastfeeding can increase bonding between the child and nursing mother, stimulate positive neurological and psycho-social development, and strengthen a child’s immune system. Breastfeeding has also been shown to reduce the risk of health problems and disease.
  • Reduction in the risk for infant mortality
  • Increases well-baby care and vaccination rates
  • Improves mother’s emotional well-being and mental health
  • Maternity leave allows mothers to increase the quality of care given to her child and can help prevent postpartum depression and stress

Family benefits

  • Greater paternal engagement in caregiving:
    • Fathers who take time from work around childbirth are more likely to spend more time with their newborns, which could reduce stress on the family and contribute to father-infant bonding.

FMLA, which provides men and women with job-protected leave for a number of caregiving purposes, has provided many American workers with unpaid leave for moments when family had to come first. But the law falls short of what families really need: universal coverage and income.

To qualify for FMLA you must work for a company with at least 50 employees and have worked 1,250 hours in the past year. That means part-time workers and small business employees aren’t protected. And most working families can’t afford to take two months off of work without income forcing many to choose between caring for their family or providing for them.

According to the report, the U.S. is “the only high-income country, and one of only eight in the world, that does not mandate paid leave for mothers of newborns”. Moving forward, IWPR urges the U.S. to catch up to other developed nations and address today’s workforce realities for both mothers and fathers through more comprehensive legislation. A paid family leave and medical insurance law would help build a more productive workforce, promote economic competitiveness, and bring substantial health benefits to individuals, employers, and society.

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