Where San Francisco Leads, America Must Follow: All Workers Need Access to Paid Parental Leave

San Francisco last week approved the best family medical leave policy in the country, becoming the most recent example of local government trying to fill the gaping hole in national legislation protecting working families.

Workers in San Francisco are now guaranteed six fully-paid weeks of leave when they bring home a new child. This applies to both mothers and fathers, including same-sex couples and adoptive parents.

Without a national policy, the vast majority of new parents in the U.S. are left at the mercy of their employers, scraping together sick and personal time, taking unpaid leave and, in many cases, returning to work just a few days or weeks after the birth of a child.

The U.S. is one of only three countries in the world without a comprehensive maternity leave policy, and the Department of Labor (DOL) estimates that only 12 percent of workers have access to any kind of paid parental leave.

The Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA), the only national rule governing family leave in the U.S., guarantees just 12 weeks of unpaid leave. Yet according to a 2012 DOL report, FMLA covers only 59 percent of workers. The rest could be fired if they need to take time off.

Most often, the workers already on the cusp of poverty, who can least afford to take unpaid leave or lose their jobs, are the ones who are stuck without any protection if they have a sick child or if they want to spend time with a newborn, according to the DOL.

A study conducted in 2015 by the firm Abt Associates found that nearly one in four American women go back to work within two weeks of giving birth, many because they can’t afford to take unpaid leave or because they fear losing their jobs. 

President Obama and many other Democrats, including Sen. Bernie Sanders and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, have long advocated family friendly policies, including paid parental leave. Yet Republicans, deep in the pockets of business lobbyists, have successfully opposed them at every turn.

This means states and cities have had to fill the gaps.

California was the first to set a paid family leave policy in 2002, offering workers up to 55 percent of their salary for six weeks after the birth of a child. This week, in recognition of the fact that low wage workers need paid parental leave the most, California expanded its family leave policy, so that workers who earn near the minimum wage are now entitled to 70 percent of their wages.

New Jersey, Rhode Island, and New York have also passed family leave laws, all of which, like California’s, are financed through a small payroll tax.

Despite outspoken fears from the business community, studies have shown that these policies have had no adverse effects on business. They have, however, provided huge benefits for parents and their children.

Parental leave policies significantly lower infant and child mortality, increase the number of well-baby doctors’ visits and rates of vaccination and help ensure parent/child bonding.

Women who are able to take paid leave are considerably less likely to suffer from depression. They are also more likely to stay in the labor force and off public assistance.

Paid leave policies like those in California have shown that everyone wins when parents have time to take care of their new children. It’s time for Republicans in Congress to quit talking about family values and actually support them.

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