Life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness… and paid maternity leave?


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Other countries have recognized the need for paid maternity and paternity leave, the benefits of which have been proven for years, yet America remains stuck in 1993 with the FMLA.

Emma McCabe, Memorial Co-Editor-in-Chief

National standards for maternity leave have been at the forefront of discussion in many developed countries for some time now. Much of the conversation worldwide is concerned with providing equal paternity and maternity leave. However, many women in America are still in the process of fighting for the right to paid maternity leave.  

Edmond Public Schools (EPS) is a perfect case study of the current conditions concerning this problem because, like a majority of US businesses, corporations and organizations, they follow the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) as the guidelines for their current policy.

This act, passed in 1993, details a policy in which eligible family members are given 12 weeks maximum of protected job-leave for medical and family reasons. However, this is an unpaid 12 weeks which only about half of Americans qualify for and though some employers provide paid leave, it is determined by employer and coverage, which means it varies from person to person in America. Only a minority of people in the US report having had a paid leave extending past six weeks. 

Employees in EPS are given a choice of using built up sick days they did not use their previous years (they receive 10 per year), applying their 5 personal days for the year (which are partially docked from the employee’s pay), utilizing sick day sharing if a fellow employee is so gracious as to donate a few of their sick days to them or creating a patchwork of these options in an attempt to elongate their leave. 

However, the average age of parents or guardians of newborns or recently adopted children is late 20s to early 30s. At this point in their career, they have not had much time to build up their sick days, therefore, they do not have the option of using that to spend consecutive weeks in paid leave. 

And, in giving away sick days to other employees, the givers are donating paid days from their retirement plan, which can serve as a deterrent from giving and, though it is anonymous, can put guilt on the party requesting others’ days. 

Research done by the Institute for Women’s Policy Research (IWPR) collected studies done by a variety of researchers on the topic of maternity leave within Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries.

On average, OECD (35-country organization dedicated to democracy and the market economy) countries provide mothers with 18 weeks leave due to childbirth; the main exception being the United States, which is the only OECD country to offer no statutory entitlement to paid leave on a national basis. And surveys done by the International Labor Organization showed that out of 185 countries and territories, the US was one of only two countries that offered its citizens no paid maternity leave.

“The United States is the only high-income country in the world that does not mandate paid maternity leave (Heymann and McNeill 2013) and only a small portion of employers provide paid parental leave to both mothers and fathers voluntarily,” IWPR said. 

 This is a particularly confusing conundrum considering the enormous amount of research done which proves the economic, sociological and physical benefits for the parents, children, employers, businesses and a country’s economy as a whole. Just a few of these include increasing the chance that employees will return to work after childbirth, improving workplace morale, reducing costs to employers through improved employee retention and improving family incomes. 

Economy-wide benefits include reducing government spending on public assistance and increased labor force participation, which would, in turn, would result in “economic gains, generating a larger tax base and increased consumer spending (IPWR),” that other countries have recognized and are already taking full advantage, providing leave as a matter of economic competitiveness. 

Despite all this however, a minority of American workers receive paid leave and very few states have any sort of extended provisions for paid leave and if they do, it generally excludes fathers and adoptive parents. Overall, there has been a sense of “settling” or “putting up with” the FMLA. This settling can be seen in EPS where it was voted and passed to base their policy off of FMLA and not extend past that. 

But the lack of demand for change does not necessarily mean the FMLA is the best option for employees but rather that there is little to no faith in the local, state or national government to ensure or promote citizens’ welfare. 

That which the government is fine with subjecting its citizens too is not only outdated, but harmful to the image of the US and US workers in general and not up to the standard of America’s fellow high-income countries. A new, more comprehensive legislation, including coverage for every American worker across all socio-economic classes, is needed to build a more productive workforce and a stronger economy.

Contact Emma McCabe at [email protected].