Arrival of Paid Maternity Leave is Long Overdue in Washington State

by Marilyn Watkins

It seems someone’s walking by pushing a baby carriage pretty much every time I look out the window of my Beacon Hill home. From my front porch, I can see three houses with infants. The neighborhood parents have bonded, not just over sleep schedules and teething, but also commiserating over how both moms and dads had to return to work too soon.

And these are middle class parents who could afford to buy a house in Seattle in the past few years.

This week is the twenty-third anniversary of the federal Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA). It provides job-protected leave – without pay – for up to twelve weeks for the birth or adoption of a new child, care of a seriously ill family member, or the worker’s own serious health condition.

FMLA was a significant step forward that has helped millions of working families – but only a step. That unpaid provision is an obvious impediment for most people. In addition, the law only applies to a little over half the workforce: those in companies with more than 50 employees, who have been with that company at least a full year and worked 1,250 hours or more the previous year.

The U.S. is the only country in the world, aside from Papua New Guinea, that doesn’t guarantee paid maternity leave. Several states have acted on their own to ensure that working families have paid leave for both parents, as well as when a family member or the worker has a serious health condition.

And guess what? In those states (California, New Jersey, and Rhode Island), parents take longer leaves, especially mothers of color. Women in those states are more likely to be employed a year following childbirth, and for higher wages, and less likely to have been forced onto public assistance. Mothers are able to breastfeed for longer, moms and babies both have better health outcomes, and dads are more involved with their child. All of those outcomes benefit children, families, employers, and the state for the long term.

Those paid leave programs also cover other family and health crises: caring for a parent who has had a stroke or a spouse recovering from surgery, or dealing with a worker’s own cancer diagnosis.

Washington’s legislators have a bill before them right now to set up a similar program here. The proposal uses the same definitions of qualifying family and health conditions already well-established in the FMLA, but provides workers with two-thirds their usual pay for up to twelve weeks and covers all workers – even independent contractors. The system would be funded jointly by workers and employers through a small payroll premium of 0.2% (that’s $1.35 a week for someone making $35,000 annually).

Because it’s family and medical leave insurance, employers wouldn’t have to pay the employee when out on those extended leaves. Companies could use the wages they save to hire a temporary replacement if necessary, making leave equally available to workers in firms large and small. Businesses would also benefit from fewer people being forced to quit their jobs, as well as higher morale and productivity.

Adopting this program would be a big step toward decreasing the glaring inequalities of race, gender, and class that plague our society. Today, the wealthiest and most privileged parents also get the most generous employer-provided paid leave benefits. They are able to spend ample time nurturing their newborns, boosting their child’s brain and social development and establishing the foundation for long-term health and success. Lower income parents are forced back to work too soon, often before the mother has even physically recovered from childbirth. Medical bills and other expenses can push families into a financial hole, making them more vulnerable and stressed.

All these factors compound to improve the lifetime prospects of high income kids and undermine those of lower income children.

Legislative deadlines are looming, and it looks like our legislators are going to postpone moving forward with family and medical leave insurance yet again. Can we really afford to wait? How many more children will be born, how many more elders will spend their last weeks without family by their side before we act? It’s not too late to send your legislators a message: our children and families are too important to wait any longer.

Marilyn Watkins is policy director of the Economic Opportunity Institute, a nonpartisan policy center  focused on building and economy that works for everyone.

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