I study American government, and I’ve spent years being told that America is exceptional in its politics, in its history, in its social, racial and intellectual diversity. But there’s another way that we’re exceptional, a way that we don’t learn about in school and that politicians don’t brag about for political capital.
There are 178 recognized countries in the world. 175 countries require employers to offer paid maternity leave to new mothers. The United States is one of the three exceptions, and the only first world country without a paid maternity leave law. (The other two countries are Swaziland and Papua New Guinea.)
Within the US, just two states offer paid family leave to men and women—New Jersey and California—but the statutes do not guarantee that employees who use their paid leave can’t be fired as a result.
Now, every state is required to follow the Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993 (FMLA), a piece of legislation that requires qualified employers to provide up to 12 weeks of job-protected, unpaid leave to workers who need to deal with medical and family issues.
Twenty years ago, the passage of FMLA was rightly considered a huge victory for former president Bill Clinton; but the victory should have been considered the first step, not the last, toward ensuring that no one is ever forced to choose between their careers and their family.
FMLA cannot be the last step because if you work for a company that employs fewer than 50 people, or you work part-time, or you’ve worked for a company for less than a year, or you need to take care of extended family or grandparents, your leave isn’t protected under the law. In fact, a staggering 40 percent of the workforce isn’t protected.
And stories reported by those that are covered indicate that the law is loosely enforced and often inattentive to the actual needs of employees: a new mother will take her three months of leave to care for a newborn, only to return to the workforce with a decreased salary, a demotion, or an office half the size of her old one. A mother put on bed rest prior to the birth of her child is fired for not returning to work when her leave is technically up but her child is only 12 days old. A man is fired for just requesting leave in order to care for his ailing, elderly parent. Another is fired for requesting time off to take his dying father to the hospital.
Where are our priorities?
After all, the Department of Labor, the administrative body responsible for overseeing FMLA, has stated that the law is intended “to balance the demands of the workplace with the needs of families,” but it sounds like the demands of the workplace, specifically the demands of employers, are being prioritized over families.
When the law was first under review, lobbyists for the business community demanded that any legally mandated leave be unpaid. Their reasoning? Monetary benefits, they said, would encourage employees to abuse the leave policies. And of course, they also argued that paid leave would economically punish the employers while rewarding the employees.
But if the purpose of the law is, in fact, to help balance the demands of the workplace with the demands of families, is unpaid leave really enough?
The types of situations that warrant leave under the FMLA are all costly: a new baby, a close family member in the hospital, an employee’s own medical needs. Unpaid leave might guarantee that these people don’t lose their jobs as the result of a pregnancy or unforeseen medical issue, but it certainly doesn’t help cover the costs of supporting the very families they’ve taken time off for.
Let’s go back to maternity leave as an example, and let’s think of the average middle class American woman. 12 weeks of leave might give her enough leeway to prepare for a new baby, recover from delivery, and bond with the newborn. Maybe. But what if she’d previously provided 47% of her family’s income, as so many middle class women do? In all likelihood, that family is going to be severely impacted by three months with only half of the earnings it’s used to. Is that family’s needs really being met?
All of this isn’t to say that FMLA is a bad law. According to government estimates, 100 million workers have taken advantage of government-guaranteed family leave. The problem is that FMLA doesn’t go far enough, it doesn’t prioritize families. As a country, we’re not doing as much as we can to ensure that people who work hard every day are never asked to choose between putting food on the table or being with a sick loved one in the hospital.
We must put pressure on our politicians to reevaluate family leave laws. Call your congressmen. Write to your senators. Share your stories. Insist that your lawmakers listen to your stories, that they know how your family is impacted by a lack of useful family legislation. Tell them that this is an area of public policy where America can no longer stand to be exceptional. As Best for Babes co-founder Danielle Riggs puts it, “[Family and maternity leave] is very serious. This is not a woman’s issue; this is not a sideline issue. This is a front and center issue, a human rights issue.”
Lets stand up for our human rights, and for our families.