by Danila Crespin Zidovsky
May 7, 2015
Take a glance at any contemporary parenting blog, website or social media group and you’ll see the “mommy wars” playing out. The battles range from helicopter parenting versus free-range kids to sling versus stroller, and cloth versus disposable diaper. While the battles (and the guilt that comes with them) are real, they are keeping our attention from the real mommy wars: the abysmal lack of national policies to protect new mothers in the workplace.
Almost three-quarters of mothers are in the labor force and they are the primary breadwinners in 40 percent of U.S. households. Still, the U.S. is one of the few nations on the globe that does not ensure that new moms have paid maternity leave. In fact, we have no federal policies on paid leave of any kind and our policy on unpaid leave does not protect enough working women. This Mother’s Day we need national policies that reflect our nation’s true family values.
Every country except the U.S., Suriname (in South America) and Papua New Guinea provides paid maternity leave according to the World Policy Forum. Even in countries with poor civil rights records, such as Somalia, Iran and North Korea, women get at least some paid maternity leave. Women receive 12 weeks in India, 16 weeks in the Netherlands, and almost 70 weeks in Sweden. In America, only 16 percent of U.S. companies offer paid maternity leave. In addition, there are no workforce protections in place for women who are pregnant and taking even unpaid maternity leave often means the loss of a job.
Only one in eight working women receives paid family leave, which allows employees to take time off from work to care for a new baby or a sick family member. Just three states—California, New Jersey and Rhode Island—offer paid family leave and they do it through a social-insurance system. These programs are set up much like unemployment insurance, with the cost passed along to employees (although the costs range from only pennies to a few dollars a month, depending on salary). President Obama’s fiscal year 2016 budget recommendation includes more than $2.2 billion to support the development of state paid family and medical leave programs like these. Grants would help up to five states create paid leave partnership initiatives by covering initial program set-up costs as well as state leave funds. If this funding is passed, New Mexico should apply for a grant.
The federal Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) does require private-sector employers with 50 or more employees and all public-sector employers to allow up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave to employees who meet certain criteria. Thanks to the many exclusions, only 60 percent of new mothers are covered under FMLA.
With no legal requirement to offer paid leave, employers generally only do so in order to attract and keep well-educated workers. Thus, low-income women—who make up more than half of the female workforce and are least likely to have paid leave—disproportionately suffer. Requiring employers to provide paid family leave would help ensure that low-income women not lose a day’s pay or become unemployed when they need to take care of themselves, a new baby or an ill family member. Paid time off allows both parents time to bond with their infants, and allows mothers time to initiate and continue breastfeeding. Women who take paid leave are significantly less likely to rely on public assistance and are more likely to be working in the nine to 12 months following a child’s birth.
On this Mother’s Day, let’s truly support mothers and caregivers. Let’s pledge to keep our elected officials accountable. Let’s end the mommy wars and instead wage war against antiquated family values that leave the needs of New Mexico families out.
Danila Crespin Zidovsky, MPA, is the Fund Development and Community Relations Officer at New Mexico Voices for Children and a new mother.