Skip to content

The Poor State of Family Leave Benefits in the US

October 29, 2009

As the debate over health care rages on, I can’t help but think about all the other benefit areas that need reform in the USA. My husband and I are currently contemplating starting a family and we are concerned about the lack of sufficient leave for us to properly care for a child. Not only is the leave allowance inadequate for a vast majority of Americans, but it is also unrealistic considering that it is unpaid. Currently  the US is the only industrialized nation which does not guarantee maternity leave for all its mothers. For my family, these facts are especially sobering because we are from Europe, a continent where even the poorest nations guarantee some form of paid leave for all mothers. For example, Albania provides all mothers with 1 year at 80% of salary before birth, and 150 days after at 50% . I have lived here most of my life, my expectations for and understanding of good family policies are heavily influenced by the European model. In America, women and men cannot even begin to imagine the leave guaranteed to parents in Sweden, the country with the most generous family leave policies and, according to Save the Children, the best place to be a mother. Politicians can hardly talk about the importance of family values in the US if they do not support well-balanced families in which parents have adequate, legally protected time for the care of their children and the opportunities to continue excelling in their careers, after taking on the responsibility of child rearing.

Multiple studies have shown that individuals perform better at their jobs when they feel valued, rested and not taken advantage of by their workplace. A worker who is allowed enough leisure time will be less stressed and more likely to increase productivity in their job. This is not to say that family leave rests in the same category as vacation time, but family leave certainly provides for a proper period of adjustment during a tremendous life change. Parents who have access to guilt-free, guaranteed paid leave , to allow them to adapt to parenting are more likely to return to work satisfied rather than resentful about being forced to leave a small child behind. Furthermore, upon returning to work, a mother or father, are less likely to neglect job duties while worrying about their child who, they don’t feel is in the right care.

The American Family and Medical Leave Act, enacted in 1993, made minor improvements to taking time off to care for a young child or a sick relative, but it is hardly sufficient for the needs of most parents. In terms of maternity leave, it allows for women (and, in theory more than practice, for men) who have a baby to take 12 unpaid weeks off. This is only legally mandated if the parents work for a company of 50 employees or more. While having some leave, for some parents, is nice, it is far from enough. Even if you are lucky enough to work for a place with 50 or more employees, what good is leave if it is completely unpaid? With life getting increasingly expensive, loss of income for even a short time is not something that many families can afford. In addition, taking time off to care for a child is not something that ought to be treated as a special indulgence. Taking the necessary time to bond with a child should be encouraged for women as well as men. Again, in this regard the US could learn a lot from Sweden where both men and women are allowed paid and unpaid time off to care for their child.

The overwhelming lack of benefits for the care of young children and a lack of affordable day care makes parenting in America a real problem. Few if any parents feel good about handing over a 3 month old baby to a stranger, regardless of how reputable the care facility. With the status quo, new parents are essentially expected to give birth to a child, maybe take some unpaid leave, return to work right when they are usually just beginning to get used to their new addition, spend their pay on overpriced (often subpar) daycare, work as if their job comes above everything else and smile because they supposedly live in the best nation in the world. The alternative is to have one of the parents completely quit their job, but this is only fair if done based on one’s own true desire to be a full-time parent and when financially possible. I personally don’t know too many families that can easily sacrifice one partner’s income, while rearing a child nonetheless, and not be deeply economically impacted. Bringing up healthy, well-adjusted children is in the best interest of every nation. If parents do not have the necessary tools to do this, society cannot expect the best results. Parents don’t just face stress over loss of income, but also feel discouraged to equally involve themselves in raising a family and growing in their careers. I hardly think that choosing between being a workaholic and giving up one’s hopes and dreams for a satisfying career to stay home is something to feel good about. On the other hand, I know that many people of my generation find family development just as important as the establishment of a fulfilling career.

Progressive politicians as well as women’s groups stand to gain from taking up this debate. Providing both parents with a guilt-free, paid leave right after the child is born certainly provides a better chance to a balanced start and a more harmonious family future. People in other industrialized countries are continually shocked by the poor state of family support in the US. The trade-offs that American parents accept seem unreal to many parents abroad. The richest country in the world should be ashamed of not providing parents with time to care for a child and should re-think how much society stands to gain by extending 21st century, gender-balanced benefits to all of its residents.

Ultimately, social programs which keep in mind the importance of family-friendly policies also have the power to level the field between men and women in parenting and career. Encouraging both parents to take time off to care for a child, while also providing financial assistance, would begin to overthrow the common attitude that expects women to be the only ones sacrificing career or education to care for a baby. If both sexes were given time off with pay to bond with their son or daughter, the outdated expectation of the mother being primarily responsible would begin to fade. Even in a time when women earn about 25% less on every dollar than men, maternity and paternity leave allowances can at least begin to at fill the expectation-of- care gap. They not only allow both sexes to develop healthy family bonds but also allow for both of them to continue thriving in their careers.

No matter how you approach it, 12 weeks of unpaid leave which can be shared between partners is just not good enough. There is a way that some women and companies/organizations have created to pay for some part of the unpaid leave, solely to mothers. This benefit is extended through short-term disability insurance and again it is not realistically sufficient. The pay only covers four weeks for a normal delivery and 6 weeks for a C-section. That benefit also does not pay in full; a woman can hope to receive about half a month’s salary and again this does nothing for the partner of the woman delivering. One has to question a system which deems pregnancy and post-labor recovery as a disease. Pregnancy and childbirth should not qualify as a disease because they really do not qualify as such. If a disease is a result of pregnancy then that is a different case. I find it sexist that having a child is deemed the same as an illness. This type of system is not only unfair to the women having children, but also mistreats those who qualify for disability leave. Pregnancy/childbirth and illnesses/injuries are different and should be treated as such, neither one being unnatural, just a part of life. Adequate disability leave for illnesses/injuries is another matter up for reform but does not fit the scope of this article. Am I truly in the minority when I say that the US is far from a sustainable benefit model for all of its legal residents and should be ashamed to praise a status quo which in many ways lags half a century behind other industrialized nations?

Based in the San Francisco Bay Area, Nadia works for an organization which evaluates nations’ actions/plans to curb climate change.  She has a Master’s Degree in International Relations and a background in psychology, politics and gender studies.

Reblog this post [with Zemanta]
One Comment
  1. Victoria Filipczyk permalink
    October 29, 2009 5:04 pm

    What to go Nadia! I truly agree with your sentiments and it is shameful that in this country more of an effort to help young families stay home longer with their children, is discouraged.

Comments are closed.

  • Previous Series at GAB

  • TWITTER: What’s going on @GABblog

  • Top Posts

  • Recommended Reading

  • We participated in Blog for International Women’s Day 2010.

  • NetworkedBlogs

  • %d bloggers like this: