Editors' note: Janet Walsh is the deputy director of the Women's Rights Division of Human Rights Watch.
Imagine that you are four months pregnant, excitedly telling your friends and family and starting to make plans for baby. You tell your human resources director at work, a small company, and ask about maternity leave pay. You're told there is no paid leave, but you can take off six weeks with no pay. You worry, but you start to save, and calculate that you can afford stay home with the baby for six weeks.
But then crisis strikes: your baby is born prematurely by c-section, and goes straight into the intensive care unit with serious health problems. At first, you don't know if she'll make it, but day by day her health improves. You have a difficult, painful recovery from the surgery. Five weeks into the baby's life, she comes home. You've used up most of your time off and savings, and now have one week to adjust to having baby home.
Your day care center takes babies at six weeks, but you're worried about the baby's poor immune system and sustaining breastfeeding when you return to work. Your partner used her only paid days off--five sick days--when you had the emergency c-section. She also works for a small company not covered by the Family and Medical Leave Act, which anyway guarantees only unpaid leave. Getting some amount of paid parental leave, even just part of your wages for few weeks, would have made a huge difference to you, allowing a bit more time to stabilize before transitioning to daycare and work.
This is not a far-fetched scenario.
This could happen to millions of parents in the US, where national law requires no paid parental leave and where only a handful of states guarantee such leave. Yes, some employers voluntarily offer paid maternity and paternity leave. But only 9 percent of civilian US workers have paid family leave benefits, and only two in five working women are covered by temporary disability insurance policies. Perhaps you're part of the lucky minority with paid parental leave benefits. Whether you are or not, healthy infants and economically secure families are all of our concern.
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- Paid parental leave is a human right under several international treaties. The US hasn't ratified the treaties, but is considering ratifying the international women's rights treaty with a caveat that would exempt it from offering paid parental leave.
- Human Rights Watch is interviewing parents about their experiences with unpaid leave, and is advocating for stronger legal protections. Contact them at firstname.lastname@example.org if you have a story of your own to share.
- At least 177 countries have laws guaranteeing paid parental leave. Only a few, including the United States, Papua New Guinea, and Swaziland, do not.
- Only two states (California and New Jersey) currently have laws establishing paid family leave insurance, funded through very small payroll deductions. Washington State enacted a law on paid parental leave, but has not implemented it.
- A handful of other states offer temporary disability insurance to mothers after childbirth, but this protects only biological mothers, not other parents.
- Research shows that paid parental leave can reduce infant mortality, improve immunization rates and health outcomes for mothers and babies, increase fathers' participation in child care, improve breastfeeding initiation and duration, strengthen women's connection to the workplace, and avoid family poverty spells.
- Paid parental leave can benefit businesses by reducing turnover and the costs of recruitment and training.
- The lack of paid family leave hits low-income families the hardest. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, among the lowest-income workers, only 3 percent have this benefit.
- Several bills are pending in Congress on paid family (including parental) leave, including one to establish a national family leave insurance fund and one to help states found their own. We all know how fast federal legislation moves these days, but fortunately about half a dozen states are also considering bills on this.
- President Obama included a $50 million fund in his proposed budget for the Department of Labor to help states establish paid leave programs, far less than he pledged when campaigning. The administration's Middle Class Task Force and the White House Council on Women and Girls are looking at work-family balance issues, which should include paid parental leave.
When you gave birth or adopted your kids, did you take parental leave? Was it with or without pay? How long was your leave? How did this affect breastfeeding? Your health? Your baby's health and access to immunizations? Your family's finances? How did this affect your work and career? If you are in an LGBT family, did you face additional obstacles to accessing paid leave? How else did the lack of paid parental leave affect you and your family? Do you know other parents who have had little or no paid parental leave?
As a mother of two young boys and a human rights advocate, I care deeply about this issue. I need your help to understand how the lack of legally guaranteed paid parental leave is affecting families. Please contact me at email@example.com if you're willing to talk to me about your own experience.