California earns an A-; 17 states get an F
It’s pretty sweet to be a working parent in California, which a decade ago adopted the nation’s first paid family leave law. It might not be so great to have kids and a job in Oklahoma, which hasn’t a single benefit or program to support families before and after the birth, adoption or foster placement of a child.
When it comes to working-parent supports such as paid family and medical leave, paid sick days, and pregnancy accommodations, no state in the union is doing quite enough, according to a June 2014 analysis of state laws and regulations governing paid leave and workplace rights for new parents in the United States.
On one end of the spectrum is the Golden State, which earned a grade of A- from the National Partnership for Women & Families in its study Expecting Better: A State-by-State Analysis of Laws That Help New Parents. On the other end are states like Utah and Wyoming, which were among 17 states that earned an F.
“The ability of working people in this country, including new and expecting parents, to manage their responsibilities at home and on the job should not depend on where they live,” said Debra L. Ness, president of the National Partnership, which promotes policies that help parents meet the dual demands of work and family. “Lawmakers at all levels should take a close look at this study and the evidence that shows the benefits of providing leave and other workplace protections, and then move quickly to establish the standards people urgently need and deserve.”
The National Partnership reviewed public policies aimed at helping new parents in each state and the District of Columbia. It looked at selected laws that expand upon federal leave and workplace protection for private-sector and public-sector state employees, and graded all 50 states and the District of Columbia.
While its laws that help new parents brought California the closest, not a single state earned a grade of A. Connecticut, Hawaii, New Jersey and the District of Columbia received a B+ for advances in providing workers access to paid sick days, paid medical leave for pregnancy and paid family leave. Illinois, Oregon, Rhode Island and Washington received a B for efforts to protect working parents through expansions of the federal Family and Medical Leave Act and for other family-friendly policies.
The 17 states that received a grade of F failed to provide a single benefit or program to help support families before and after the birth, adoption or foster placement of a child.
Most states fall somewhere in between, which indicates that they’re doing something to expand upon minimal federal protections, but not enough, according to the study’s authors.
“Despite all of this progress in policy and attention, there is much more work to be done,” the authors wrote. “Too many working people are one ill family member or one new baby away from financial insecurity, and the United States remains an outlier among nations by not providing basic paid family and medical leave policies.”
A National Problem
The United States has three national laws that address pregnancy discrimination, unpaid family and medical leave, and nursing mothers’ rights at work, thereby helping some new and expecting parents.
Although paid leave for new mothers is guaranteed in 181 other nations, and 81 nations guarantee paid leave for new fathers, the United States is one of few countries that don’t guarantee workers access to paid leave. The federal Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) provides new parents up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave, but just under 60 percent of the workforce is eligible for its protections and many cannot afford to take unpaid time off.
The U.S. also lacks a national policy guaranteeing paid sick days, pregnancy accommodations and other support to expecting and new parents. Less than 40 percent of workers have access to employer-provided short-term disability insurance, which provides some income during a woman’s pregnancy-related disability leave. And only about one-tenth of the U.S. workforce has access to employer-provided paid family leave to care for a new child. Workers in low-paying jobs are far less likely to have access to these employer-provided benefits.
After returning to work, some nursing mothers have legal protections that help them continue to provide breast milk to their children, but others must rely on their employers’ good will to be able to pump at work.
“Too often, expecting mothers who need but are not provided reasonable accommodations at work are forced to take unpaid leave, quit or jeopardize the health of their pregnancies,” the study’s authors wrote. “Working parents without paid leave—or even job-protected unpaid leave—face a range of difficult choices, none of which are acceptable. New parents are frequently forced to return to work before they, their spouses or partners, or their children are ready. Many must take unpaid leave that stretches their families’ financial resources and puts their jobs at risk. Others must resign from work altogether.
“None of these options serves working families or the nation well,” the authors continued. “They hurt the national economy and local businesses by depressing consumer spending, and they erode the nation’s competitiveness and cause significant and often longstanding hardship for families and communities.”
This is the third edition of Expecting Better. In the two years since the second edition was published:
- Rhode Island adopted the nation’s third paid family leave insurance program, and several states—including Connecticut, Vermont and New Hampshire—have assembled task forces to study similar programs.
- California expanded its paid family leave law to allow workers to care for a wider range of family members, including siblings, parents-in-law, grandparents and grandchildren. The expansion went into effect July 1, 2014.
- Colorado expanded workers’ ability to take unpaid, job-protected family leave to care for domestic partners.
- Maryland expanded workers’ ability to take unpaid, job-protected family leave after the birth or adoption of a child, beginning October 2014.
- Maryland, Minnesota, New Jersey and West Virginia adopted laws guaranteeing women with pregnancy-related physical limitations the right to reasonable workplace accommodations, making it possible for them to stay on the job rather than resigning, taking unpaid leave or jeopardizing their pregnancies.
- Hawaii adopted a law requiring employers to provide reasonable break time to new mothers who express breast milk, and to make reasonable efforts to provide a place other than a toilet stall for them to do so.
Call for the Future
The National Partnership and other organizations are calling on Congress to pass three pieces of legislation: the Family and Medical Insurance Leave (FAMILY) Act, which would create a national paid family and medical leave insurance program; the Healthy Families Act, which would set a national paid sick days standard; and the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act, which would help guard against pregnancy discrimination.
President Barack Obama has called for family-friendly workplace policies, and for several years his budget has included money to support states that create their own paid leave programs.
In June 2014, the White House hosted a Summit on Working Families in Washington, D.C., to showcase policies that would help working parents and families.
Dana Wilkie is an online editor/manager for SHRM.
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