May 6, 2012
We are living in the Golden Age of hypocrisy.
There's an obesity epidemic, and we're baking hot dogs into pizza crusts. People spend tens of thousands of dollars on off-road vehicles that will never see a drop of mud.
And we all seem to agree on the importance of families, yet America — unlike more than 170 other countries — doesn't guarantee paid work leave for new mothers.
It's this last item I'd like to discuss. (Though there are a few things I could say about hot dog-infused pizzas.)
A new report out of Rutgers University presents overwhelming evidence of the benefits of giving parents access to paid time off when a child comes along. It makes for healthier babies, more workers returning to the job post-maternity leave and, of course, stronger families.
Yet according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, only 11 percent of private-sector workers and 17 percent of public-sector workers have access to paid family leave through their employer.
If we look at lower-income families — people earning the bottom quarter of wages — the numbers drop even more, with only 5 percent of private-sector workers and 14 percent of public-sector workers having access to paid leave. It's also worth noting that most in this demographic can't afford to take the unpaid maternity leave guaranteed under the federal Family and Medical Leave Act.
These figures are ridiculous. In a country where politicians routinely preach the importance of families, how are we collectively OK with forcing new parents to choose between nurturing a newborn or staying financially afloat?
"There has been a lack of progress on this issue, and too many families are struggling right at the time when they should be celebrating the birth of a new family member," said Vicki Shabo, director of work and family programs at the National Partnership for Women & Families. "Working parents should have the benefit of these programs."
It shouldn't take a study to hammer home the idea that giving employees six or so weeks to bond with a new child is a good thing. But that's where we are, so let's look at the report from Rutgers' Center for Women and Work.
Two states — California and New Jersey — have functioning paid family leave programs. Three others — Hawaii, New York and Rhode Island — have temporary disability insurance programs that cover a portion of a woman's wages for the time she takes off after giving birth.
The study found that low-income women in those five states are twice as likely to take maternity leave than women in states that offer no paid leave. Overall, 62 percent of women working in what the report calls "family-friendly states" take leave after childbirth, compared with 39 percent in other states.
A mother taking time with a newborn is crucial for a number of well-documented reasons. A 2005 study published in The Economic Journal found that children whose mothers return to work within 12 weeks of giving birth "are less likely to receive regular medical checkups and breastfeeding in the first year of life" or get all their immunizations by 18 months of age.
"Breast-feeding establishment and bonding — we tell women that you absolutely need to do this or you're endangering your child's health," said Linda Houser, an assistant professor of social work at Widener University and co-author of the Rutgers study. "But then we say, 'Oh, by the way, make sure you don't miss any work.' There's some cross-messaging going on there."
If the health of a baby doesn't move you, Houser's study also found a key financial component: female workers in family-friendly states are far less likely to use food stamps or other forms of public assistance after childbirth.
In states with no paid maternity leave, nearly a quarter of new moms received an average of $749 in public aid in the year after giving birth. Only 10 percent of new moms in states with paid leave received assistance, and the average amount was $358.
"We were expecting that maybe low-income women who take paid leave would have a change in welfare payments," said Thomas Vartanian, a professor of social work and social research at Bryn Mawr College and co-author of the Rutgers study. "But what we found was that those that were taking paid leave were taking quite a bit less welfare payments. So we're talking about women taking less public assistance money, which is money coming from taxpayers."
So where does the money for the paid leave come from? In California and New Jersey, it's the product of a small payroll tax.
In New Jersey, for example, the payroll tax is 0.08 percent with a maximum yearly contribution of $24.24. That gives women and men access to up to six weeks of paid leave — at two-thirds a person's wages up to $559/week — after a birth or adoption. It can also be used to care for a sick family member.
As you might expect in our current political climate, there's considerable resistance to any type of government mandates on businesses.
But all evidence coming from New Jersey and California indicates that a paid family leave program has either a neutral financial impact or saves companies money. For example, employees given paid leave are more likely to return, cutting down the cost of recruiting and training new workers.
"Companies perceive that the costs are going to be high and they're going to lose employees, and that's where the resistance comes from," Vartanian said. "But the facts show otherwise."
So that brings us back to: Why aren't we doing this everywhere?
Perhaps it's because we're hypocrites. Maybe it's because some just rebel at the idea of government telling them what to do. Maybe all the hot dogs in our pizza crusts have made it impossible for our brains to reach consensus on reasonable public policy.
But this is truly a no-brainer. Mothers should be able to take time to get a new member of society established without worrying about falling behind on bills. Or losing a job. Or winding up on food stamps.
It's time for workers to make some noise about this issue, and for politicians to listen.
In the end, it's for the good of all of us.
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