When Beth* had her first two children, her employer’s paid family leave policy covered her family’s expenses while she took time off to recover and bond with her infants. Not having to worry about a gap in income meant she could focus on her maternity leave. But when she gave birth to her third child, Beth was working for a different company that did not offer a paid family leave policy. Still, she and her husband felt they could manage some debt in order to take unpaid time off.
Then, Beth was diagnosed with cancer just days before her baby’s first birthday. During the following year of cancer treatments, the family’s expenses piled up, along with their debt, as Beth took more unpaid time away from work.
Beth says that having a paid leave policy, either for maternity leave or to cover her cancer-related leave, would have better situated her and her family for her health crisis. “We’re still digging out of debt,” says Beth, who is now cancer-free.
For many employees, starting a family impacts the trajectory of their career and their family’s economic story in ways both foreseen and unanticipated. The way that an employee eases (or staggers) into parenthood creates ripple effects that can be felt for years, even decades, by families, workplaces, entire industries and our society. Research shows that parents who receive paid leave from work to recover from childbirth and raise their babies reap long-term benefits: When new moms are afforded paid maternity leave, they have fewer health complications and are more likely to be working and earning more money one year after the birth of their child, which leads to better economic, academic and social outcomes for children later on. It’s also been found that babies receive better preventive care when moms are given paid leave. When fathers have access to paid leave, they are more likely to take leave and are more involved in the direct care of their children. Paid leave actually improves businesses’ bottom lines, reduces stress among employees and improves morale among the employees who take leave and their coworkers.
“Paid family leave is the No. 1 policy that improves health and economic outcomes for all people. Even though we live in the world’s richest country, the wealthiest people here are dying earlier than in other countries. Our infant mortality ranks 37th worldwide,” says Teresa Mosqueda, political and strategic campaign director for the Washington State Labor Council, AFL-CIO. “All of society benefits from paid family leave, not just the people who are taking the leave.”
Yet despite these known benefits, the United States is one of only two countries with no national paid maternity leave for mothers (96 countries also offer paid paternity leave). The federal Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) ensures unpaid family leave for eligible employees, but this guarantee is available to fewer than 50 percent of workers. And it’s unpaid. What does this mean on the ground? One-quarter of working mothers will have to return to work within two weeks of bringing a new child home. One-quarter of all poverty spells in our country stem from the act of having a baby.
While efforts to establish a national paid parental leave law have so far failed, progress is happening in both the private sector and at the state legislative level. Hear this, Washington state parents: Our turn could be right around the corner. Advocates say this state is closer than ever to passing a program that would, quite literally, change the way workers from Seattle to Spokane, from Kirkland to Kennewick, become parents and navigate both family life and work life after that milestone. Like the handful of states that have led the charge launching paid family leave, Washington state is on the cusp of something big.
So what does this possible change — a major upgrade to our lives that would affect attorneys, kindergarten teachers and grocery clerks alike — need to move from imagination to implementation? You.