I recently had the opportunity to travel to Munich, Germany for vacation. My partner and I spent most of a day crisscrossing the center of the city on foot, visiting churches, seeking currywurst, and wandering through the Englischer Garten. We noticed parents with their infants everywhere we went, eating breakfast at the cafe, strolling along the sidewalk, lying on picnic blankets in the park. Bonding, playing, loving. Unlike in the United States, these infants were not just one or two months old, but one to 15 months old. And, unlike in the US, they were as likely to be with Dad as with Mom.
Germany, like most of the rest of the world excepting the United States, has a robust paid parental leave policy. That policy is evident on the streets of Munich.
Paid family leave improves child and maternal health
Paid family leave allows new parents to spend time at home with their newborn or adopted child, developing the nurturing, protective bonds that enhance brain development and ward off toxic stress. In addition, parental leave has direct, immediate impacts on the health of infants:
Maternity leave correlates with higher rates and longer duration of breastfeeding (1, 2)
Maternity leave is associated with higher birth weights and lower infant mortality (3)
Parental leave improves rates of vaccination and well-child checkups (4)
Paid family leave is also important if a child becomes seriously ill and requires more than a few days of hospitalization or care at home.
For new mothers, maternity leave correlates to increased energy, decreased fatigue, and decreased symptoms of depression (5, 6).
Paid family leave can help relieve childhood poverty
Access to paid family leave in the United States is extremely limited. In most states, employers can choose not to provide paid family leave. Nationally, it is a privilege that only 13% of workers have (7), and they tend to be higher earners. Only 5% of earners in the lowest quartile have access to paid family leave, while 21% of earners in the highest quartile do (7). The birth or adoption of a child, or a child’s serious illness, are events that increase household emotional and financial stress. Low-income workers are least likely to be able to afford a disruption in pay during one of these events. As a result, many parents who get unpaid leave after the birth or adoption of a child return to work early because they cannot afford to go without pay.
Universal paid family leave would allow many more parents to take leave, and to receive pay during that leave, at a time when financial demands on a family are relatively high. These benefits would accrue especially to low-income families.
United States lags behind on parental leave policy
Relative to 20 other wealthy nations in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), the United States parental leave policy – The Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) of 1993 – falls short:
Parental leave is shorter than in other countries – 24 weeks total for both parents versus an average of 95 weeks, median of 60 weeks
Parental leave is unpaid, compared to an average of 23 weeks fulltime-equivalent paid leave, median of 20 weeks (8)
In addition to these limitations, many US workers do not qualify for FMLA. There are key requirements that exclude many parents from eligibility:
the employer must have 50 or more employees
the employee must have worked for 12 months for that employer
the employee must have worked at least 1250 hours in the previous year for that employer
These requirements exclude part-time, temporary, and seasonal workers. They also exclude many low-income workers who work more than 40 hours per week but hold more than one part-time job.
The FAMILY Act
The Family and Medical Insurance Leave (FAMILY) Act, first introduced in 2013, would make qualifying family leave, such as the birth or adoption of a child or long-term care for a seriously ill child, available to all workers. The Act would:
Provide up to 12 weeks of family leave with partial pay
Provide 66% of wages during the leave, up to a capped amount
Be paid for with a payroll tax of 2 cents per $10 in wages
Be available to every worker, including part-time and seasonal workers, and those who work for small businesses
The FAMILY Act, if implemented, would make paid family leave available to every working mother, father, and adoptive parent. This is likely to improve breastfeeding rates and vaccination rates, and help low-income and middle-class families afford to take time off from work to bond with their newborn or tend to their sick child.
Ogbuanu C, et al. 2011. The effect of maternity leave length and time of return to work on breastfeeding. Pediatrics 127(6):e1414
Guendelman S, et al. 2008. Juggling work and breastfeeding: effects of maternity leave and occupational characteristics. Pediatrics 123(1):e38-e46
Rossin M. 2011. The effects of maternity leave on children’s birth and infant health outcomes in the United States. Journal of Health Economics 30(2):221-239
U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. 2014. Work family supports for low-income families: Key research findings and policy trends. Office of the Assistant Secretary for Planning and Evaluation. http://aspe.hhs.gov/hsp/14/WorkFamily/rpt_WorkFamily.pdf
Chatterji P and Markowitz S. 2004. Does the length of maternity leave affect maternal health? National Bureau of Economic Research Working Paper No. 10206
McGovern P, et al. 1997. Time off work and the postpartum health of employed women. Medical Care 35(5):507-521.
US Bureau of Labor Statistics. 2014 http://www.bls.gov/ncs/ebs/benefits/2014/ownership/civilian/table32a.htm
Ray R et al. 2009. Parental leave policies in 21 countries. Center for Economic and Policy Research