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19 years after Family Leave Act, many Americans still shortchanged

August 2, 2012

Nearly two decades ago, on Aug. 5, 1993, the United States took a stride forward by implementing the Family and Medical Leave Act. But we’ve got further to go.

The Family and Medical Leave Act enabled almost a generation of hardworking mothers to take time off with their newborn babies without risking their jobs. And the law offered such leave to fathers, too, for the first time. The new law reinforced a fundamental American belief: Family values shouldn’t end at the workplace door.

The Family and Medical Leave Act has been used more than 100 million times. Two states, California and New Jersey, have implemented family leave insurance programs so workers can afford to take time off when ill or to take care of ill loved ones. New York hopes to do the same next year. The state of Washington has passed a paid parental leave program.And a Fortune 500 company just hired a pregnant CEO.

Now for the bad news.

More than one in 10 American women goes back to work within four weeks of giving birth – mainly because she can’t afford to take the time she needs with her baby.

Note: The Family and Medical Leave Act is unpaid and applies only to companies employing 50 or more. This leaves out half the workforce. So, nearly half of new moms receive no paid maternity leave. (Not surprisingly, giving birth is one ticket to poverty.)

Even as more women become the primary or co-breadwinners in their homes, we’re seeing rollbacks in paid leave policies. Only 16 percent of private companies today offer fully paid maternity leave – down from 27 percent a decade earlier, according to the Families and Work Institute.

Worldwide, a 10-week average extension in paid leave helped bring about a 20 percent drop in infant mortality. Yet our infant mortality rate has worsened compared to other countries – we’ve slipped to 34, down from 29 – behind Cyprus and Croatia. And more than twice as many mothers are dying in the United States today as in 1987.

If we want more babies and mothers to thrive, and more parents to stay employed, the solution is obvious: We need to expand access to family leave and make it affordable.

Ask Lillian Miwa Mayer in California, a food server at a retirement home. Thanks to the state paid family leave program, she and her husband were both able to take paid time with their baby without risking their jobs.

Or ask James Musson, who under New Jersey’s Family Leave Insurance program took leave in six one-week increments after his twins were born. “As a father, you are looked at as a ‘spare part,'” he said. Being able to afford “family leave with the twins made me appreciate mothers more and really spend time with the babies.”

Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer may not need to use California’s paid leave program. But other women – and men – should be able to afford to be home with their newborns.

Some day soon, bonding with a baby should be as easy as using a search engine.


Ellen Bravo directs Family Values @ Work Consortium, a network of state coalitions working for paid sick days and paid family leave. She previously served as national director for 9to5, National Association of Working Women. She wrote this for Progressive Media Project, a source of liberal commentary on domestic and international issues; it is affiliated with The Progressive magazine.