By Debra L. Ness, President, National Partnership for Women & Families
Just as planning carefully for pregnancy and childbirth is important, so too is thinking about how you will protect your family’s economic security once the baby arrives. That responsibility falls most often to families because, despite all the rhetoric about family values, politicians in our country have largely failed to put in place the programs and policies that help parents meet the dual demands of job and family. As a result, at precisely the time they should be focused on giving their children the healthiest possible start in life, tens of millions of expecting and new parents instead struggle to keep their jobs and make ends meet – some facing financial hardship from which they may not recover for years.
That unfortunate – even shameful – fact differentiates us from the rest of the world. The International Labor Organization surveyed 185 countries and territories in 2014 and found that the United States was one of only two that did not offer paid maternity leave. We are also far behind much of the world in providing paid paternity leave.
Families suffer as a result. In fact, in our country today, if you are an expecting or new parent who doesn’t work for an employer that has fair and family friendly workplace policies in place, the state in which you work may be what defines your family’s economic future. That’s because some states have adopted laws that help protect the health and economic security of expecting and new parents – but many have not.
A new study from the National Partnership for Women & Families documents just how serious the problem is. Expecting Better: A State-by-State Analysis of Laws That Help Expecting and New Parents is the most comprehensive analysis ever conducted of state laws and regulations governing paid leave and other workplace rights for expecting and new parents in the United States. We graded all 50 states and the District of Columbia based on whether they have adopted laws that offer greater leave and workplace protections than federal law provides.
California was the only state to receive a grade of “A” in our study. The District of Columbia and New York earned grades of “A-.” Eleven states earned grades of “B+,” “B” or “B-.”
The results for the remaining states were deeply disappointing. Ten states earned “C” grades and 15 states earned “D” grades. And 12 states earned grades of “F” because they have failed to enact a single workplace policy to help expecting or new parents that goes beyond the minimal support that federal laws provide.
Believe it or not, those poor grades actually reflect some progress since we first conducted this study in 2005:
- Colorado, Delaware, Illinois, Maryland, Minnesota, Nebraska, New Jersey, New York, North Dakota, Rhode Island, Utah, West Virginia and the District of Columbia have passed laws requiring employers to provide reasonable accommodations to pregnant workers.
- Arkansas, Colorado, Hawaii, Illinois, Indiana, Maine, New Mexico, New York, Oregon and Vermont are among the states that have enacted laws to protect the rights of nursing mothers in the workplace. The District of Columbia has done so too.
- New Jersey, Rhode Island and New York have enacted paid family leave programs, joining California as leaders for the nation.
- Five states and the District of Columbia have enacted laws to guarantee workers the right to earn paid sick days, and two of those laws have already been expanded.
- Policy advances have expanded workers’ access to flexible use of sick time in Maine, Maryland and Minnesota.
But, sadly, progress at the state level is still the exception rather than the rule – and our families, communities, businesses, economy and country are less secure and less prosperous as a result.
What states do is so important because Congress has, for the most part, failed to adopt family friendly workplace policies for the country. The Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), which provides unpaid, job-protected leave to about three-in-five workers in the United States, was enacted 23 years ago. Since then, progress at the federal level has largely stalled.
The one exception is the Affordable Care Act, which provides many nursing mothers with a new “right to pump” at their worksites. As a result, many nursing mothers who return to work now have the right to take reasonable break time and use a private place to express breast milk while at work, for one year after giving birth.
That was a meaningful advance, but the country needs much more. We need all states to adopt these policies and Congress to pass federal legislation, including the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act, which would combat pregnancy discrimination; the Family And Medical Insurance Leave (FAMILY) Act, which would establish a paid family and medical leave insurance program; and the Healthy Families Act, which would set a paid sick days standard for our country.
I believe that progress is within reach, but only if all of us who care about these issues become activists who press for change. We already see that happening. Mothers and fathers, siblings and grandparents are sharing their stories, writing to state legislators and to members of Congress to send the message that we all need paid leave – not only to care for new babies, but to recover from illness and support older relatives too. And employers of all sizes are showing their support by offering paid leave to their employees and endorsing public policy solutions.
But even more is needed. We all need to talk to city council members, mayors, state legislators, governors, members of Congress and candidates at all levels to demand family friendly workplace policies.
We all need to say, as often as we can, that laws that provide reasonable accommodations for pregnant workers, paid sick days and paid family and medical leave are long overdue in this country.
The National Partnership for Women & Families has pioneered fair and family friendly workplace policies since we opened our doors 45 years ago. We drafted and led the fight for the FMLA, which workers have used more than 200 million times and which has transformed our nation’s workplaces – and we are leading the fight for paid family and medical leave now. We know, from vast experience, that real change comes when people come together to make it happen – when we stop seeing the status quo as inevitable and demand more, for ourselves and our children.
Campaigns in dozens of states are pushing to make workplaces more fair and family friendly through local, state and federal initiatives. I urge you to join one, become involved and make your voice heard. You can also make your story and voice count by contacting your elected officials, especially your members of Congress. Organize your friends, family and community to do the same. Together, we can change the landscape for expecting and new parents, and the whole country.