Washington State’s Failure to Mandate Paid Parental Leave Hurts Gender Equity, Parents, and Kids
My best friend from graduate school and I will both become first-time mothers this year. As a citizen of Ireland, my friend will be able to stay home with her baby for almost a year and then return to her present career path. As an American state employee, I can either stay home with my child or maintain my current career trajectory—and I’m one of the lucky ones because I get to actually make a choice.
Irish law includes a “maternity benefit” that pays 80 percent of wages to new mothers during the first 26 weeks after birth, and can begin two weeks before birth if needed. An additional 16 weeks of unpaid leave is optional. In the United States, the federal Family and Medical Leave Act requires that employers grant only 12 weeks of leave to new mothers, and payment of wages during this time is decided state by state. Only California, New Jersey, and Rhode Island offer paid leave; Washington State passed a law in 2007 requiring paid leave for new parents, but it hasn’t gone into effect because it lacks funding.
If I don’t want to leave my baby at three months of age to go back to work, I will give up my job in—ironically—global health and look for work again once my child goes to school. And to my knowledge, none of the places where I currently freelance, including The Stranger, offer paid maternity leave or anything beyond the federally mandated 12 weeks of unpaid time off. In a part of the country where global-health work is incredibly competitive and underfunded, I’ll most likely be scraping the bottom of the barrel to get back into the workforce. But my Irish friend will be able to jump back into her field with the seniority and security she’s built up over the last 10 years since we graduated and parted ways.
Numerous studies prove that women who receive paid maternity leave are more likely to return to their jobs, thereby remaining contributing, upwardly mobile members of the workforce, so why is the United States the sole industrialized country in the world that doesn’t mandate some amount of paid leave?