While US Lags on Paid Maternity Leave, Some States Make Progress

April 28,2016

While the United States is the only developed country in the world that does not offer paid maternity leave for new mothers, both of the current Democratic presidential candidates support a national standard of 12 weeks of paid family leave.

It’s not a new proposal, though. President Barack Obama called for it in his 2015 State of the Union address, but it drew quick opposition from some Republicans in Congress.

It's not unusual in the United States for a new mother to quit her job after giving birth to a child. Sam is only 9 months old, and his mother, Lora, dreaded the thought of going back to work.

"I got only six weeks with him, and it is just not enough time. We needed someone to take care of him, but the cost of day care in D.C. is high. I would not be bringing home enough money to cover day-care bills," she said.

While the U.S. is nowhere close to a federal law that mandates paid maternity leave, some states are addressing the issue. A new law in New York assures new mothers 12 weeks of paid maternity leave. New Jersey covers 67 percent of six weeks of leave. California covers 55 percent of six weeks. Rhode Island covers four weeks.

"If you live in those four states, you would be covered and eligible to have paid leave, but if you live in the rest of the USA, it really just depends on whether or not your employer voluntarily offers those benefits, since we do not have any national programs to provide wage replacement," said Sarah Jane Glynn from the Center for American Progress.

US law 'has not caught up'

Democratic presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders favor a national program that would allow new mothers to take 12 weeks of paid maternity leave. This is an improvement over the 1993 Family and Medical Leave Act — which provides job-protected unpaid leave to government employees or those in private sector companies with 50 or more employees. But critics say that law covers only 60 percent of new mothers because only 60 percent of workers even qualify — and many new moms cannot afford to take time off.

"The U.S. has not caught up with the fact that most women today work. Our labor laws ... the majority were set a long time ago when families looked very different. Today the majority of women work, the majority of mothers work, even the majority of moms who have very young children are in the paid labor force," said Glynn.

Still, some companies do provide not only paid maternity leave but paid paternity leave as well.

New dad Joe is thrilled to have six weeks of paid leave.

"I think it is up to employers to pay or not, but the best employers are doing it now. It is good for the employee, which means it is good for the company," he said.

Opponents of a paid family leave law say it’s bad for business because it’s too costly.

"Small businesses cannot afford to have that burden on them. Also, the small businesses cannot afford increases in taxes," said one.

But supporters of the idea say the cost of paid maternity leave is very low relative to the benefit to the family.