Saturday, February 21, 2015

It's Time to Take FMLA to the Next Level

Philadelphia photographer Melissa Hassey created this!
by Glenni Lorick, IBCLC
This year marks the twenty-second year since the Family and Medical Leave Act has been passed. Certainly many families have benefited from its provision that allows mothers to take up to twelve weeks of leave with their babies and still keep their jobs and insurance coverage. However, there are still improvements that could be made to extend its benefits to more workers.

The Current Situation

Let's look at who benefits the most under the current FMLA. Those who are employed full-time with an employer who has over 50 employees in a 75 mile radius are usually considered eligible for FMLA. The employer guarantees that the employee will still have her job, and promises to continue paying for her insurance. Those employees who work for smaller companies or are not full time do not have any kind of coverage.

The biggest obstacle, however, that many employees face is the loss of income when they take their leave. Mothers who are already living on a shoestring sometimes go back to work even before the baby is six weeks old because they feel they don't have a choice. Some companies do offer at least a partially paid maternity leave, but there is no public policy mandating that they do so. In fact, the United States is only one of three countries in the world that does not have some sort of law mandating some form of paid maternity leave. The other two are Swaziland and Papua New Guinea. Our neighbor to the north, Canada, actually allows parents to receive employment insurance payments of 55% of their regular salary up to a maximum of $524 per week for up to 37 weeks following the birth of a child.
How we compare! From 

Where Do We Go From Here?

The obvious answer is that we need to find a way to provide mothers with a paid maternity leave without placing an undue burden on employers. Small businesses are often the first to feel the pinch when it comes to any extra taxes or financial obligations. However, if every other industrialized country in the world has found a way to do this, then we should be able to find a way to make it work, as well. Canada's employment insurance model makes a lot of sense. In Switzerland employees are required to take 8 weeks of paid maternity leave as part of the Swiss social insurance system. In Sweden both parents are expected to take parental leave, and are given up to a total of 480 days of leave that may be divided between them. They continue to receive about 77% of their pay. The cost is divided between employer and government.

In the United States we have a very different type of economy. We are not a socialist state, nor do most Americans want to pay the taxes associated with a plethora of government-provided services. Nevertheless, there has to be a solution that will respect our capitalistic roots and still care for mothers and babies. The solution is really quite simple, and has been implemented in New Jersey and California: It is a very small tax (less than $3/month) that every employee pays. The program ends up paying for itself and contributes to a stronger, more stable, and ultimately more profitable workforce. This article from Forbes Magazine explains it better than I ever could.

Great comparison chart from KellyMom

Framing the Dialogue

I think it is important to frame this dialogue correctly. We are not talking about welfare or an entitlement program here. Rather we are talking about moving the United States into its rightful position as a world leader in the treatment of women. Even countries where women's rights are scorned have laws on the books requiring a paid maternity leave! That should be a source of embarrassment for our governing authorities. 

This is not a Republican or a Democratic issue. It does not deal with less government control or more government control. It has nothing to do with liberal or conservative. No, it is an issue that every citizen who has a child, every citizen who respects the roles of mothers and fathers, every citizen who wants to see our children get the very best start in life must take seriously. We have seen the immense costs to our society of NOT having mandatory paid parental leave. In fact, one of the biggest costs of not having paid parental leave is an increase in the number of women receiving public assistance according to a Rutgers Study. 

Regardless of where you are on the political spectrum, take a few minutes to study this issue and let your elected representatives know that it is time for the United States to take leadership on behalf of parents throughout this great country!

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