AMERICAN FORUM

By Linda Meric

When his first two children were born, Daniel Wells didn’t even think of asking his employer for leave. But when his wife became pregnant with the third, he better understood the need to bond with a new baby.

So Daniel, an arborist, requested time off following the birth. He was shocked when he got the answer: request denied. The company said it couldn’t get along without him, not even for a few weeks, and cited a “substantial economic harm” clause in denying the leave.

After the birth, Daniel found himself back at work in three days – instead of three weeks.

“I guess it was just as well. We were already struggling,” he says, “And taking unpaid time might have harmed more than helped.” Still, in his heart, Daniel recognizes that more than anything, more than new ties or new toys, Dads like him need paid, job-protected time away from work for major events in their family lives.

As another Father’s Day approaches, it’s fitting that we consider new Dads, as well as Moms, and paid family leave. Most countries provide at least 10 weeks of paid leave for new mothers; some countries offer paid leave for both parents. Only four countries provide no paid parental leave at all – and the United States is one of them.

But all parents should be able to stay home to care for a new baby and Father’s Day is a good time to push for paid family leave.

The Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993 was a significant step forward for working families because it granted the right to take up to 12 weeks off to care for a new child or a seriously ill family member. Unfortunately, it also has several limitations. It applies only to workplaces with 50 or more employees, and there are longevity and hours worked requirements that leave some workers out. There are exceptions like economic harm, and, worst of all, it provides
only for unpaid leave. Many families cannot afford to take FMLA leave because they cannot afford the loss of income.

Paid family leave improves infant health. Babies have more bonding time during the period of critical early development and their mothers are more able to breastfeed, reducing childhood illness and the risk of childhood obesity. Paid family leave and time off before returning to work is also healthier for mothers. Paid paternity leave is good for fathers, too. Ellen Galinsky of the Family and Work Institute says fathers also experience significant work-life conflict, and paid leave can be a financial and mental health lifesaver.

There are benefits of paid leave beyond even parenthood. Paid family leave allows seniors and the chronically ill to be independent longer, recover quicker and stay out of nursing homes. Studies show that businesses also benefit from paid leave because it reduces turnover costs and helps workers stay attached to their jobs.

In these tough economic times, everyone is compromised by the lack of paid family leave in the U.S.

But there’s hope.

The legislatures of five states are currently examining California and New Jersey’s lead, employee-funded arrangements that provide compensation to take time off to care for an ill family member or to bond with a new child. In addition, President Obama’s 2011 budget would establish a $50 million State Paid Leave Fund within the Department of Labor that would provide competitive grants to help states cover start-up costs. The budget also provides resources to improve the collection of data related to the intersection of work and family responsibilities. It must be approved.

As we celebrate dear ole’ Dad isn't it time to enact policies that provide support for mothers – and fathers – who want to be both good parents and effective family breadwinners, too?

Isn’t it time America had a paid family leave policy?
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Meric is Executive Director of 9to5, National Association of Working Women.
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Copyright (C) 2010 by American Forum. 6/2