How would you answer the question posed in this CNN headline?
“Paid leave for parents: What’s the right amount of time?”
“As much as you can take!” might be the answer you’d expect from a pediatrician. Kelly Wallace says this is a question that Congress will soon be taking up:
The research is clear. Based on CNN’s review of more than 20 studies on the health impacts of paid parental leave on parent and child, we found that most studies come to the same conclusion: Paid parental leave can have a significant positive effect on the health of children and mothers.
Wallace reminds us that the United States is in the lonely company of much less prosperous countries like Papua New Guinea, Suriname, and Tonga as the only countries on earth not having a national policy for paid family leave. The 1993 Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA) provides 12 weeks of unpaid leave to employees. However, only 60% of the American workforce is eligible for this benefit because the law covers only full-time workers who work in companies with more than 50 employees. Researchers at New America have studied the issue and concluded that FMLA is insufficient:
Subsequent research has shown, indeed, that women from disadvantaged backgrounds are far less likely to have access to paid leave and can’t afford unpaid leave. Businesses and organizations currently voluntarily offer paid family leave to 14 percent of the civilian workforce, generally highly skilled workers. Workers with the highest incomes are three and a half times more likely to have access to paid family leave than those with the lowest incomes. And while unpaid FMLA has led to substantial reductions in infant mortality and other benefits, research shows that that’s largely true for college-educated married mothers who are better able to afford unpaid leave.
Wallace says New America’s evidence-based research answers the question: “How much time is enough?”
Based on infant health, maternal health, gender equality and female labor force participation, they recommend six months to a year of paid family leave.
Six months to a year. It must be said that during FMLA negotiations two-and-a-half decades ago, pediatricians and other child health experts requested at a minimum six months of paid leave after the birth of a child — the period of time it takes for most women to completely recover physically and emotionally from childbirth. Instead, this is what American women got from their (mostly male) federal legislators:
Six weeks is the amount of time you may be eligible for some disability pay after a vaginal delivery and eight weeks after a cesarean section. Twelve weeks is the amount of unpaid leave you may be eligible for under the 1993 Family Medical Leave Act, as long as you’re at a company with 50 or more employees, and have worked at that company for at least a year, and at least 1,250 hours during that year.
Many new mothers return to work much earlier. As many as 25% take only two weeks off after giving birth.
Two important vital statistics measured by the New America researchers were infant mortality and sudden infant death rates. Both rates, which the United States traditionally gets abysmal marks for, markedly improve, says Wallace, the longer new moms can spend at home with their new baby:
“The research is really clear, particularly when you look at infant mortality,” said Schulte. Of all advanced economies, the United States has one of the highest rates of infant mortality and sudden infant deaths.
A study of 20 low-income and middle-income countries found that for each month of paid maternity leave, there was a 13% decline in infant mortality. The greatest reduction in infant mortality was found with 40 weeks paid leave, according to the report.
“From the infant health standpoint, it matters for women to be able to exclusively breastfeed for six months. The best way to guarantee that they can exclusively breastfeed for six months is to have at least six months of paid maternity leave,” said Heymann of UCLA. “Why care so much about breastfeeding? Because breastfeeding lowers infant mortality three- to five-fold in high- and low-income countries.”
More time off also results in less psychological distress (primarily depression and anxiety) and lower maternal mortality rates.
The benefits of more time off with paid leave appear to last for many years:
The benefits for children can also be long-term, according to the research. Researchers compared the lives of children born in Norway before 1977, when mothers had 12 weeks of unpaid leave, with children born after, when the country offered an additional four months of paid leave. The children whose moms had longer leaves had better cognitive and academic development at age 30 and were more likely to have graduated from college and have higher wages.
There is additional evidence that allowing new parents more time off after the birth of a child is good for their employer’s bottom line, and for the overall economy as well:
In the United Kingdom, a survey of more than 2,000 companies found that workplaces with parental leave policies were 60% more likely to report that their financial performance was higher than average as compared to the companies that didn’t offer any leave plans.
“People like to talk about paid family leave as like a perk or an accommodation or kind of nice to have, but when you look at the totality of all of these studies, it’s really an investment in the future,” said Schulte.
Does anybody lose if the United States adopts a generous, evidence-based national policy on paid leave? We’ll find out just as soon as legislation hits the floor of the House of Representatives.