Should Americans have paid maternity leave?

Shannon Roberts
May 17, 2017
Reproduced with Permission
Demography is Destiny

Higher numbers of working parents and an aging population are putting pressure on American workers as they increasingly attempt to balance family and work obligations. Currently the United States offers near the worst maternity and family care benefits in the world.

The country's Family and Medical Leave Act only mandates 12 weeks of unpaid leave annually for mothers of newborn or newly adopted children, meaning many can't afford to take it. Only five states, California, Rhode Island, Washington, New Jersey, and New York and the District of Columbia, have laws providing for paid family leave.

However, things may be changing. President Trump recently called for a national law that new mothers who are not given maternity leave by an employer be paid six weeks of unemployment benefits by the government. Many are saying his proposal does not go far enough, but at least it is something more than before.

A new study conducted by Pew Research Center finds that Americans largely support paid leave. However most supporters say employers, rather than the federal or state government, should cover the cost. The public is divided over whether the government should require employers to provide this benefit or let employers decide for themselves and relatively few see expanding paid leave as a top policy priority.

However, perhaps most interestingly, flexibility is also just as important as time off to many mothers and caregivers according to the research. When asked what benefits or work arrangements would help most personally, about as many cite being able to choose when they work their hours (28%) as cite having paid family or medical leave (27%); about one-in-five (22%) say having flexibility to work from home would help them the most.

There is also broad support for paid leave for workers dealing with their own serious health condition (85% say workers should be paid in these situations), but less support for paid leave for those caring for a family member who is seriously ill (67% favour paid leave for these workers).

Whatever form it takes, hopefully we see greater support for the family and recognition of the role of caregivers in American society in the coming years. At the very least, flexibility is often so easy to give and can be a mutually beneficial arrangement in many cases if employers are willing to think outside the square and recognise the family responsibilities of their employees. In my experience, many mothers wish to care for their children a majority of the time while also fitting in flexible part-time work. Many fathers would be happy to start earlier if it means finishing earlier and consistently being home for dinner. However, many opt to work more hours than they wish or need to because of a lack of flexibility or option.