The experience of bringing a new child into your world is fraught with so many challenges and things to learn — and that’s without mentioning the unique emotional and physical changes you’ll go through if you have given birth. As if things aren’t difficult enough for new parents, they’re often left wading uncharted waters when it comes to navigating paid parental leave and job security when you are ready to come back to work.
You likely don’t need us to tell you that the stats on paid parental leave for new parents in the U.S. are grim, particularly compared to other countries. According to data from the World Policy Analysis Center, the U.S. is the only wealthy country in the world without any guaranteed paid parental leave on a federal level. While the federal Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) guarantees most workers at companies with at least 50 employees access to unpaid family caregiver leave without risk of losing their jobs, it’s simply not acceptable on any level that we’re one of only six countries in the entire world without paid parental leave. Frankly, it’s bullsh*t.
What is parental leave?
According to the U.S. Department of Labor, parental leave is defined as “leave for an employee to take care of a newborn child, recently adopted child, foster child, or a child otherwise needing parental care.”
Who has access to paid parental leave?
First, you might want to take a deep breath before hearing the bad news: The vast majority of Americans do not have access to any paid family leave through their employer. As of 2021, only 23 percent of American workers at private companies are eligible to receive paid family leave, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Things are slightly better for those employed by the federal government. As of October 2020, the Federal Employee Paid Leave Act grants federal employees 12 weeks of paid leave after welcoming a child. The policy, part of the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2020, grants paid leave time to more than two million federal workers, with the stipulation that they have been in federal service for at least one year, along with the legislation requiring reauthorization each fiscal year.
Under the Biden administration, federal progress on the parental leave front is frustratingly slow but showing mild signs of improvement. Several bills are currently in consideration in Congress, including the Family And Medical Insurance Leave (FAMILY) Act, which would provide workers with up to 12 weeks of partial income when they take time for any health reason, including pregnancy and childbirth recovery, the birth or adoption of a child, and more. The FAMILY Act would benefit full-time and part-time workers of any size company, including self-employed and contract workers.
President Biden attempted to pass the Build Back Better Act, a broad package of health, social, and climate change policies, including four weeks of partially-paid family and medical leave for nearly every U.S. worker. However, its fate remains in limbo thanks to Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia’s refusal to pass it through the Senate in late 2021.
That said, 11 states and the District of Columbia have enacted paid family leave programs in recent years, as Vicki Shabo, the Senior Fellow for Paid Leave Policy and Strategy at New America’s Better Life Lab, tells Scary Mommy. California, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, Rhode Island, Washington, Connecticut, and D.C. already have active paid programs to benefit new parents. Oregon’s program will start paying benefits to eligible workers in 2023; Colorado’s program will go into effect in 2024; Maryland’s in 2025; and Delaware’s in 2026, says Shabo.
What are the benefits of paid parental leave?
Frankly speaking, no parent should have to be back at work within days or even weeks of welcoming a child, and even unpaid leave of any kind is a bleak reality in our country. Research consistently shows the benefits to the physical and mental health of new parents who are given more than a few weeks of paid parental leave, especially for those whose body is recuperating from birthing a human. Identified health benefits to children whose parents receive paid paternal leave include increased immunization rates and well-baby checkups, higher likelihood and longer duration of breastfeeding, decreased avoidable hospital visits, and more engaged parental care.
But ample paid time off is beneficial for every family member, not just new moms. Babies benefit immensely from having both caregivers home in those crucial first months, and paternity leave is equally important in allowing dads or secondary caregivers the opportunity to participate in childcare.
How can you determine your benefits?
“Access to paid and unpaid leave in the U.S. is all too rare, and it’s confusing,” says Shabo. “This is unfortunate — advocates and people who’ve experienced confusion and disappointment are working hard for change. Start early in researching your options and asking your employer for what you’ll need.”
“For companies with HR manuals or policy handbooks, start there and then talk to someone in HR,” she suggests. “If you’re with a small company or a company that hasn’t had someone take a parental leave before, you should also approach HR, but do a little bit of research first about your industry and use resources produced by organizations like The Skimm or Paid Leave for the U.S. for guidance on what to ask for. Also, confirm whether your state has a paid family and medical leave program (or a temporary disability insurance program in place) and whether the unpaid family and medical leave and pregnancy disability protections in your state provide you rights and protections.”
Unfortunately, another issue plaguing new parents is job security once you are ready to re-enter the workforce. “Access to job security depends on whether you and your workplace are covered by the federal FMLA law, whether you have additional and greater protections under state laws, and on your employers’ policies,” says Shabo. “As a baseline, the FMLA guarantees job security and continuation of health insurance benefits to workers who have been employed for at least a year and have worked 1250 hours in the prior year — but it only applies to worksites with 50 or more employees within a 75-mile radius. Those restrictions exclude nearly half of the workforce! Some states offer more protections, and some employers choose to guarantee job security because it is both the right thing to do and helps them attract and retain employees.”
Shabo’s top tips for anyone about to embark on this journey: “Know your rights, talk to other people in your community and your workplace, and breathe deeply.”
Vicki Shabo, the Senior Fellow for Paid Leave Policy and Strategy at New America’s Better Life Lab