After MSNBC anchor Katy Tur gave birth to her first child in 2019, she devoted her comeback show to the need for a family leave policy that matches that of other developed countries.
Her plea was personal. She had undergone an unplanned C-section to deliver her son and had struggled with breastfeeding her small baby, who needed to nurse frequently. She also got a post-op infection, which slowed down her surgical recovery. All of this made her feel exhausted to the point of hallucinations, and she feared being home alone with her newborn after her supportive husband returned to work. It’s not an atypical story, especially for first-time parents.
“Mothers and fathers need time with their babies and they need support,” she said then. “Lawmakers talk about family leave but nothing gets done. It’s shameful.” She might have made the exact same plea after the birth of her daughter earlier this year.
Tur was one of the lucky ones. Her employer had an excellent, supportive family leave policy. Most women — and men — are not so fortunate. Many women must return to work within a couple of weeks of giving birth because they can’t afford unpaid leave. Seventy percent of men must return to work within 10 days of becoming a father.
An estimated 80 percent of U.S. employers do not have paid parental leave or have miserably inadequate plans, often following the federal government, which gives most federal workers just 12 weeks of paid parental leave. That’s a pittance compared to other countries.
A 2019 study of 41 countries conducted by the Pew Research Center revealed the dismal U.S. situation. Countries like Estonia, which topped the list at 86 weeks of paid leave, Japan, Norway, Luxembourg, Malta, Korea and others had impressive leave policies. The U.S. ranked last.
Clearly, another Labor Day, a day on which we honor the country’s workers, has come and gone and still we fail to support women’s ongoing labor — in the workplace, at home and, essentially, after childbirth.
While we have yet to enact a national mandate for paid family leave, some states do have paid leave policies in place. They report a measurable reduction in the number of women leaving their jobs in the first year after giving birth and up to a 50 percent reduction after five years, according to a 2019 study conducted by the Institute for Women’s Policy Research.
Paid leave is gaining more traction as an issue in need of legislation. In addition to an increasing number of national models that shame our own, more U.S. women are in the workforce and more families have two working parents. And paid leave isn’t needed just for new moms and dads. It may be necessary to recover from an illness or to care for a sick or disabled family member or elderly relative.
That’s why the Family and Medical Insurance Leave (FAMILY) Act was introduced by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., and Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., yet again in 2019. The act, modeled after successful state programs, uses a social insurance system to provide workers with comprehensive paid family and medical leave. Comparable models have been passed in four states and the District of Columbia.
This year the two legislators have tried again to get Congress to pass a permanent paid leave policy nationally, arguing in language that male and conservative legislators like: The FAMILY Act, they said, would spur economic recovery and growth.
The act would ensure that every worker, no matter the size of their employer, self-employed status, or part-time work, would have access to 12 weeks of paid leave equal to up to 66 percent of wage replacement for every serious medical event every time it’s needed.
In defending the act, Gillibrand noted that the COVID pandemic seriously impacted women in the workforce and hit middle class families hard. “Women have been forced to make the impossible decision between caring for their families or earning a paycheck.”
DeLauro added, “Long before this crisis there has been a desperate need for paid family and medical leave. This problem must be addressed in a permanent way.”
“It’s a national disgrace that our federal government doesn’t guarantee paid family and medical leave for the American people,” activist Melanie Campbell, CEO of the National Coalition on Black Civic Participation, says.
Activists like her and others aren’t mincing words. “They know what it means to go back to work three weeks after giving birth. They know the extraordinary cost of having to start from scratch because of lost income while caring for a loved one with a disability,” Sade Moonsammy of Family Values @ Work said in support of the FAMILY Act, which has been endorsed by more than 85 national organizations.
It’s an act that is long overdue, as Katy Tur and other new moms and dads know. It’s time to join the list of countries that get it, and care enough to do something meaningful in support of American workers and their families. The hand that rocks the cradle has long needed a hug and a little help. Surely that’s not asking too much.