Last month, Richard Branson, the founder of the multi-billion dollar Virgin Group, announced his plan to “revolutionize the workplace” byoffering a year of paid parental leave for some employees. Only .2% of the workers under Virgin’s umbrella (approximately 140 out of 50,000) will be eligible for the full benefits under his plan. Regardless, this move is still widely regarded as a boon to the modern workforce because it symbolizes the growing understanding of the importance of paid leave for mothers and fathers, both biological and adoptive.
According to a 2014 study by the International Labour Organization, 182 of the 185 industrialized countries sampled offered some paid parental leave, with at least 70 requiring both maternity and paternity leave. The United States, sadly, was one of the three in the study who did not. As ABC news reports, paid maternity leave was mandated in Oman, meaning we’re now alone with Papua New Guinea.
United States Department of Labor statistics report that employer-sponsored paid family leave is available to only 12% of our private sector workers. The rhetoric surrounding this issue often claims this low number is because business cannot afford to offer more. However, the Department of Labor specified that “After California and New Jersey enacted paid family leave benefits, most businesses in those states reported positive or neutral experiences and few negative effects.”
Beyond the lack of long-term cost, the benefits of providing paid family leave have been well documented. A 2014 study by the White House Council of Economic Advisors reported that women allowed to take paid maternity leave are more likely to return to their employers than those who take unpaid leave. Even better, these women are more likely to earn more in the years that follow than their contemporaries who are not offered the same. This pattern is backed up by a 2012 Rutgers Center for Women and Work study, which explained that “Women who report leaves of 30 or more days are 54% more likely to report wage increases in the year following the child’s birth than are women who take no leave at all.” The same Rutgers study showed that both men and women returning to work after paid leave, as opposed to those who are unable to take leave, are considerably less likely to participate in public aid programs, including food stamps.
The positive effects of paid leave do not end with economics. Both the Department of Labor and White House Council agree that infants and children of those allowed to take paid parental leave are healthier. Although we do not yet know the long-term benefits, maternity leave has been proven to cause higher birth weights and lower infant mortality. Further, paid parental leave results in fewer hospitalization days for sick children and a lower likelihood of cross-infection among young kids at school.
In light of the overwhelming evidence that paid family leave is not only necessary but advantageous in many ways, our country does seem to be slowly heading in the right direction. In January of this year,President Obama directed Federal agencies to “allow for the advance of six weeks of paid sick leave for parents with a new child, employees caring for ill family members, and other sick leave-eligible uses.” He also encouraged Congress and state legislatures to start funding paid leave and proposed $2 billion be spent toward this end. Similar to the move by Richard Branson, this is a step in the right direction but nowhere near where we, as a country, need to be on paid family leave. As someone looking forward to having a family soon, I hope we continue our current path – and dare I ask, maybe pick up the pace a bit?