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What’s up with the US and maternity leave?

Posted by Dr. Claire McCarthy  September 3, 2013 06:37 AM

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I was 9 months pregnant on Labor Day of 2005, and we joked about how funny it would be if I went into labor on Labor Day (I didn’t).  Maybe because of that, on Labor Day I always think about working mothers—especially those who have just given birth. 

My med school classmate Jody Heymann, who is dean of the Fielding School of Public Health at UCLA, put together a jaw-dropping map of maternity leave policies around the world. I say jaw-dropping because of the 188 countries that have known maternity policies, the United States is one of only 8 that don’t have paid leave. We stand with Suriname, Liberia, Palau, Papua New Guinea, Nauru, Western Samoa and Tonga in our assertion that we don’t need to support new mothers in those weeks after they bring a child into the world.  

My friend Katherine Clark and I talk about this a lot. She and I have been friends for years, since her days on the School Committee in my town. She’s one of those people who doesn’t just get mad about the way things are—she does something to change them. That’s why she became a state rep, and then a state senator, and now she’s running for Congress.  If you’re not part of the solution, she says, you are part of the problem.

I couldn’t agree more.

When it comes to working mothers, we really do have a problem. Yes, there’s the Family Medical Leave Act, or FMLA (which turns 20 this year), that allows workers up to 12 weeks of leave to when they are sick, have a new baby, or to take care of a family member. But….you have to be a full-time employee, and work for a business with at least 50 employees, for FMLA to apply to you. That leaves a lot of women out.  Oh—and it’s unpaid. Even with scrimping and saving, going without a salary is really hard for families with children, especially when they have to pay for childcare.

I fill out FMLA forms all the time, usually for families whose children have health problems like asthma.  And although they don’t get paid when they take time off, they are the lucky ones, because their job is protected. I’ve seen so many other parents, usually mothers, lose their jobs because of one too many absences to care a sick child—or because they need more time to care for a fragile newborn.  And I’ve seen families make choices that aren’t good for their children—like sending them to school sick, or going back to work far too quickly after giving birth—so that they can keep their jobs. 

We want to be the richest and most powerful country in the world. But do we really want to do it at the expense of our families? Right now, according to UNICEF the US ranks 26th out of the 29 "rich" countries when it comes to child well-being. Come on, folks. That's just not okay.

“This shouldn’t be a political issue,” Katherine said to me recently. “This is about valuing families. The least we can do is make it a little easier for workers to take care of their families without losing their jobs.”

But sadly, it is political. There is some legislation she supports, the Healthy Families Act, that would allow workers to accrue up to 7 days of paid sick leave a year. While it’s a step in the right direction, since many people don’t have even that, 7 days is obviously not a maternity leave—and with kids you can go through 7 days pretty darn fast. Katherine also told me about legislation that's been drafted by the National Partnership for Women and Families that would give workers up to 12 weeks of paid leave at very little cost to workers or employers.

See, that’s the thing: this doesn’t have to cost us a lot of money. We can figure this out. If all those other countries figured it out, I'm sure we can. It’s worth doing—not just because it’s the right thing to do, but because paid leave makes economic sense. It lowers health care costs as well as recruitment and retention costs—and gives families more money to put back into the economy.

So this year, instead of thinking of Labor Day just as the end of summer, let’s think of it as a turning point: the point at which we begin to fight for real change for families. Let’s join with Katherine Clark and the others who want to make life better for working parents and their children.

Let’s be part of the solution. 


Is there something you'd like me to write about? Leave me a message on my Facebook page--and "like" the page for links to all my MD Mama blogs as well as my blogs on Thriving and Huffington Post. 


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About MD Mama

Claire McCarthy, M.D., is a pediatrician and Medical Communications Editor at Boston Children's Hospital . An assistant professor of pediatrics at Harvard Medical School and a senior editor for Harvard More »

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