In These Times: The Real War on Families: Why the U.S. Needs Paid Leave Now

Ian Pajer-Rogers |

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From In These Times:

by Sharon Lerner

Leigh Benrahou began laying plans to have a second child almost as soon as she had her first, a daughter named Johara, in 2011. Benrahou, 32, wanted to time the next birth so that when she returned to work, her mother, who works at an elementary school and has summers off, could babysit. Most importantly, Benrahou wanted to spend as much time as she could with her new baby while also keeping her relatively new job as the registrar at a small college.

While her husband, Rachid, 38, earns enough at a carpet cleaning company to cover their mortgage and food, without her paycheck they’d be forced to live close to the bone. And if she quit her job, Benrahou, who has a masters in nonprofit management, would take a big step backward in what she hoped would be a long career in higher education.

So Benrahou, who has wavy dark blond hair, blue eyes and a tendency to smile even through difficult moments, set about what may be the least romantic aspect of family planning in the United States: figuring out how to maximize time with a newborn while staying solvent, employed and, ideally, sane.

Only in America

Most people are aware that Americans have a raw deal when it comes to maternity leave. Perhaps they’ve heard about Sweden, with its drool-inducing 16 months of paid parental leave, or Finland, where, after about 9 months of paid leave, the mother or father can take—or split—additional paid “child care leave” until the child’s third birthday.

But most Americans don’t realize quite how out of step we are. It’s not just wealthy, social democratic Nordic countries that make us look bad. With the exception of a few small countries like Papua New Guinea and Suriname, every other nation in the world—rich or poor—now requires paid maternity leave.

Paid parental leave frees mothers and fathers from choosing between their careers and time with their infants. For women, still most often the primary caregivers of young children, this results in higher employment rates, which in turn translates to lower poverty rates among mothers and their children.

Research shows that paid leave can also be a matter of life and death for children. By charting the correlation between death rates and paid leave in 16 European countries, Christopher Ruhm, a professor of public policy and economics at the University of Virginia, found that a 50-week extension in paid leave was associated with a 20 percent dip in infant deaths. (The biggest drop was in deaths of babies between 1 month and 1 year old, though mortality of children between 1 and 5 years also decreased as paid leave went up.)

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, only about 13 percent of U.S. workers have access to any form of paid family leave, which includes parental leave and other time off to care for a family member. The highest-paid workers are most likely to have it, according to BLS numbers, with more than 1 in 5 of the top 10 percent of earners getting paid family leave, compared to 1 in 20 in the bottom quartile. Unionized workers are more likely to get benefits than nonunionized workers.

What do the rest of American women do without a law that guarantees this basic support? Some new mothers who don’t get paid leave quit their jobs, which can leave them desperate for income and have serious consequences in terms of work opportunities and lifetime earnings. Others may choose not to have children (though it’s impossible to definitively quantify how the difficulty of integrating work and childbirth factors into those decisions). And some try to stitch together their own paid leaves through accumulated vacation time and personal days, or through independently purchased insurance policies.

The best-laid plans

Though her employer doesn’t offer paid leave, Benrahou figured she’d create her own, taking time away from work through the Family and Medical Leave Act, which entitles new parents to up to 12 weeks off, unpaid. She knew all about the law’s loopholes—that, for instance, it only applies to workplaces that have at least 50 employees. Hers did; she wouldn’t have taken the job if it hadn’t. She knew, too, that she had to have worked for her employer for at least 12 months to qualify. That part was trickier.

She had started her job in February 2014, which meant that she wouldn’t qualify until the following February. She counted back nine months from then and got to May, but then, to be safe, tacked on another two months in case the baby came early, so: July. That’s when she and Rachid would start trying for a second.

Then there was money. Reluctant to lose 12 weeks of income, Benrahou decided to opt into her employer’s disability insurance policy, paying roughly $40 a month into the plan so she could receive 60 percent of her salary for up to six weeks of her maternity leave, plus an additional $1,000 toward the cost of her hospital stay. She would also save up her two weeks of annual paid vacation time.

Numbers crunched and policy purchased, Benrahou went off birth control on schedule in July and became pregnant within a month. But her carefully laid plans started to go awry in her 20th week, when she was diagnosed with placenta previa, which can result in early delivery. Despite some bleeding and cramping, and several brief hospital stays that used up her sick days, Benrahou stuck to her plan, working as much as possible after her diagnosis in order to save her precious vacation time. But, in late December, her water broke. Though her due date was April 1, Leigh Benrahou gave birth by C-section on Christmas Eve—too soon to qualify for FMLA leave or any payoff from her disability insurance.

Ramzi Benrahou was born at 26 weeks and just over 2 pounds. Knowing that 20 percent of babies born at his gestational age don’t survive, Leigh spent the first hours after the delivery singularly focused on her tiny son’s survival. He needed oxygen, since his lungs weren’t fully developed. And, when he was whisked away for medical attention, Benrahou had to attend to another crisis: She was the mother of a very sick baby, and her carefully constructed paid maternity leave had disintegrated. So, freshly stitched up and still groggy from anesthesia, she spread out her medical fact sheets, insurance policy papers and lists of phone numbers on her hospital bed and began to grapple with her new reality. Though her college was on winter break, which put off her return by about a week, Benrahou realized she’d have to go back to work when classes resumed on January 6, less than two weeks after giving birth.

Read the full article from In These Times.

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