News·8 min read

Paid Parental Leave

Paid parental leave
Design: theSkimm | Photo: iStock
Mar 8, 2020

The Story

The US is the only industrialized country in the world that doesn’t offer paid parental leave. You can read that again.

The Background

Paid parental leave lets parents take time off from work to care for a new child after childbirth or adoption while still getting a paycheck. Although some companies offer this benefit to new parents, the option hasn’t always been available in the US. 

Why’s that? 

Until the early 20th century, companies didn’t consider maternity leave a must-have because women often didn’t work full-time. During this era, some women worked until they got married and had kids, leaving men as the main provider. 

Very different times.  

Very. But then came World War II. Many women joined the workforce full-time to both support the war effort in manufacturing war materials, and to support their families while the men were away at war. Even though men went back to their jobs when they returned, women felt empowered to join the workforce long-term. And with more women working, employers were forced to come to terms with pregnancy on the job.

What a concept. 

We know. This also came along at the same time of a new wave of feminism in the 1960s, when women fought for empowerment over their own lives and equality in society. After the Civil Rights Act of 1964 banned sex discrimination, government regulation around pregnancy followed in 1972 from the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. 

What happened then?

It banned employers from firing female employees because they’re pregnant. And required employers to give pregnant women the same health insurance or disability benefits that they give to employees who are temporarily disabled. The ball starting rolling and in 1978, the Pregnancy Discrimination Act (aka PDA) made it illegal to discriminate on the basis of pregnancy, childbirth, or related medical conditions. What the PDA left out: parental leave.  

I’m sensing a trend here...

It might be. After that, the US saw a series of parental leave bills that never made it out of the gate (like the Family Employment Security Act of 1984). But these bills did get lawmakers talking more about parental leave and set the stage for future legislation.


In 1986, there was a new bill on Capitol Hill: the Family and Medical Leave Act. The FMLA granted women and men 12 weeks of unpaid, job-protected leave to care for a new child, as well as to take care of themselves if they have a serious health condition. It passed in both the House and Senate but then-President George HW Bush vetoed it...twice. He said he supported parental leave, but only if it was voluntary. But in 1992 he ran for re-election against then-Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton, who supported the FMLA. After Clinton won, it was the first piece of legislation he signed into law. The FMLA has some restrictions, like requiring employees to work for their employer for at least a year and at a company that has at least 50 employees. And paid family leave has still been out of reach for millions of Americans for decades. 

The Big Issue

The United Nations has a global standard of 14 weeks of maternity leave and a requirement to pay new moms at least two-thirds of their salary, and many countries around the world have hit this standard. That doesn’t include the US, which is the only developed country in the world that doesn’t offer paid parental leave. The question everyone and their mother (and father) wants to know is why. Experts point to two factors…

  • Work culture. American culture emphasizes strong work ethic – working harder, working longer, all in pursuit of the American dream. Many Americans have long believed that taking time off from work isn’t the most valuable way to spend your time...even when it comes to taking care of your kid. That could impact why lawmakers haven’t passed gov-mandated paid leave legislation. It’s common for women, and especially men, to worry about the stigma around taking time off to be with their newborns – and that may not change until more paid leave policies are implemented around the country. US work culture isn’t just affecting paid family leave – the US is also one of the only countries in the world where the government doesn’t mandate vacation or sick days.

  • Business interests. Thanks to lobbyists, corporations have big sway over Congress, where only about 23% of members are women. That’s contributed to lawmakers twiddling their thumbs on paid parental leave legislation. Businesses argue that a one-size-fits-all plan might be too prescriptive, given companies can range anywhere from five to tens of thousands of employees. Small businesses worry that gov-mandated paid leave could become too expensive and negatively impact their business operations.

So that’s cool… 

Some companies still offer maternity and paternity leave, even if the federal government doesn’t mandate it. In 2018, 17% of US civilian workers (which doesn’t include federal government, military, or agricultural workers) had access to paid family leave. A number of states have taken matters into their own hands: eight states and DC have implemented their own paid parental leave policies too, ranging from around six to 12 weeks off.

Will the federal gov follow their lead?

It’s starting to. Last year, President Trump signed a bill that gives all federal workers – both men and women – 12 weeks paid parental leave starting in October. Important, considering the federal government is the largest employer in the country. Lawmakers are also in favor of implementing a policy for all other employees in the US.

Tell me about that.

Democrats and Republicans both support paid family leave policies. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) intro’d a bill that guarantees 12 weeks off, with employers and employees paying a tax (an average of $2.00/week combined) to foot the bill. Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) also intro’d legislation that allows parents to take up to 12 weeks and pull from their Social Security to help fund their time off. We’ve also seen this issue pop up on the 2020 campaign trail. Many candidates say 12 weeks is best, though progressive candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) wants to give parents more than that (though he hasn’t given specifics).

The Impact

On the economy…research shows that gov-mandated paid family leave can help both  businesses and the economy.

  • Employees who take advantage of their state’s or company’s paid parental leave policy are more likely to return to work after their leave. That means companies spend less money training and hiring new employees, and it helps keep more women in the workforce.

  • More babies = more people to (eventually) join the workforce and help the economy grow. Countries like Japan and South Korea are already concerned about how lower birth rates could affect their economies in the next few decades.

  • Companies likely won’t have to worry about work productivity: one report shows that paid family leave either has a positive or no effect on productivity.

  • The World Economic Forum says that countries that offer better paid paternity leave are typically more successful in narrowing career advancement and pay gaps between men and women.

On minorities…they’re disproportionately impacted by paid parental leave policies. Research shows that higher-income Americans are more likely to have access to it than lower-income Americans. But Hispanic and African-American women are more likely to work in lower-paying jobs than white women. A federally-mandated paid leave policy can help close that gap.

On your finances…surprise: having kids is expensive. Government data shows that kids cost an average of about $13,000 a year. Infants require a lot of hands-on care, meaning many parents may need to take time off to care for them (or hire someone who can do that) and pay for things like bottles and diapers. And research shows that parents without paid parental leave face a difficult balance of expenses going up, but income going down. This research also shows that the average US household income drops 10% at childbirth, and takes several months to make that money back. If you’re starting a family soon, we Skimm’d how you can financially prep.

On your health…one in four women go back to work within two weeks of giving birth. We’ve had milk in our fridge that’s lasted longer than that. Going back to work too soon after having a kid can put more stress on moms, both emotionally and physically. Paid parental leave gives moms the time off they need to recover. One study shows it’s also proven to help prevent maternal depression and stress. 

On your family…there are a number of benefits when parents bond with their newborns. Two examples: studies show it can increase breastfeeding rates (which is attributed to numerous infant health benefits) and reduce the risk of infant mortality. Skimm Notes explains more and talks to one Skimm HQ’r about their personal experience with paid family leave.


The US has been dragging its feet on gov-mandated paid parental leave. That leaves millions of Americans with a hard task: figuring out how to raise a child when their income is at risk. But as the country as a whole has become more progressive, with more than 80% of Americans supporting a paid maternity leave policy, it’s possible we’ll see the government require all employers to offer this in our lifetime.

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