No Parent Left Behind

1395
Celia Fong
Illustration byCelia Fong.

Being a new parent is hard — sleepless nights, dirty diapers, unforeseen expenses. Worrying about getting paid time off work to take care of a child shouldn’t be one of them.

Yet, for the majority of Americans, that’s unfortunately the case.

On April 5, San Francisco passed a law mandating six weeks of fully-paid leave for all new parents, and is the first city in the United States to have a law this comprehensive. This is a landmark win for the city’s parents. Only two states besides California — New Jersey and Rhode Island — mandate paid parental leave at all, and none at full pay.

It’s downright absurd that in a country where family values are championed, especially by politicians harping on the sacred integrity of the traditional family, paid parental leave is still an afterthought.

Less than a week after this law was enacted, Gov. Jerry Brown signed legislation that will take effect in 2018 and allows people earning close to minimum wage to be paid 70 percent of their salary while on leave. People with pay up to $108,000 annually will get 60 percent of their salary during leave. The previous law provided workers with 55 percent of their salary paid for by employee-financed public disability insurance.

According to the Department of Labor, only 12 percent of private sector employers provide time off with pay for new parents. Out of 185 countries listed by the International Labor Organization (ILO), the U.S. is one of three countries that doesn’t have a national law providing some form of paid parental leave — the other two being Suriname and Papua New Guinea. Meaning, for the new parents in these nations, it’s at a company’s discretion whether they can take time off work for the arrival of a baby.

While the importance of parental presence in an infant’s first several weeks of life can’t be understated, U.S. businesses continue to compromise this basic right to turn a profit. Still, the government refuses to speak up.

Some businesses, including many tech companies, have gradually begun addressing the absence of national parental leave. Starting May 1, Twitter will offer 20 weeks of paid parental leave, meaning leave for new parents of any gender, biological or adoptive. Facebook, Apple and eBay — all northern California based companies — already have similar policies that include paid leave for all parents.

While this is an important step, the top tech companies employ only a small portion of the country’s working population and aren’t reflective of those most vulnerable to losing their pay from having a child. Individuals employed in technical jobs are often making a salary much higher than minimum wage and often receive benefits like vacation days or insurance, allowing them more leeway in planning for child-related expenses. What about people working at the federal minimum wage of $7.25 per hour with no added benefits?

Of all the infants born in the U.S., 53 percent qualify for Women, Infants and Children Act benefits, a nutritional supplement program for low-income families. While the Family and Medical Leave Act guarantees them federal protection from termination, it doesn’t safeguard their salary.

Worse, the federal and state governments are constantly cutting funding for essential family-planning services such as Planned Parenthood. If people don’t have access to information or resources to help them plan if and when to have children, the U.S. should be prepared to aid all new parents by providing them with job security and a guaranteed salary.

Diapers are expensive. Daycare is expensive. With this in mind, unpaid leave can be financially catastrophic.

There’s still a great deal of work to be done, but other localities need to follow in San Francisco’s footsteps. The ILO standard is that countries provide for at least 14 weeks of paid leave at a rate of at least two-thirds of previous earnings paid for by public funds. Bottom line: California’s new law is essential and should be expanded to the national level.

It’s about time that the U.S. catch up with the rest of the world and demand the basic decency of business owners to allow paid leave for new parents — to prioritize people, not profit.