The American Dream tells us that if we work hard, we will be prosperous enough to feel secure. This dream may be more elusive for mothers who are seeking family leave from work. Workplaces that offer paid family leave, where the employee receives at least some compensation for time at home with a newborn or recently adopted child or other family circumstances, are limited in the United States. This stands in sharp contrast to the majority of the rest of the world where this benefit is often universal.
The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that only 13% of full-time workers has access to paid family leave in 2012. Some workers can take advantage of a provision in federal law called the Federal Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), which allows 12 weeks of unpaid time off for family reasons. A recent study on the use of family leave shows that of the respondents who took maternity leave, almost one in four returned to work within two weeks of having a baby. Due to financial reasons, many families are not able to afford to take unpaid leave and this is particularly true for families with lower incomes.
The same 2012 study finds that 80% of employees with college degrees took six weeks or more for family leave, compared to 54% of employees without college degrees. This points to a socio-economic disparity in ability to take advantage of leave. A report from the Community Service Society (CSS) based in New York backs up this data. They find that only 5% of employees in the lowest-earning bracket in New York can get paid family leave, compared to 22% of the employees from the highest-earning bracket. This means that most low-income mothers in the workforce rely on what unpaid family leave they can afford.
A lack of paid leave creates additional challenges for mothers with lower incomes. In the report released by CSS, New York women who earn a lower income worry about being dismissed from jobs because of taking too much time off, and therefore usually will try to return within two to three weeks. CSS found that in turn, coming back to work too early can lead to physical and emotional discomfort for women. It can even lead to a worsening relationship with the employer and can impact productivity as well. For example, if parents returning from leave too soon are afflicted with physical and emotional complications, they may be less productive, impacting the company’s bottom line.
Several states guarantee access to paid leave by providing this as a universal insurance program funded by employees. Having a paid leave policy in Nebraska would level the playing field for working families and help women and men of all economic backgrounds to spend time with their newborns without worrying about making ends meet. Investing in all of the working families of Nebraska by putting a paid family leave policy in place could help put the American Dream back in reach for all of our state’s families.