In his sixth State of the Union speech last night, President Barack Obama asked a joint session of Congress to pass measures that would allow federal workers to earn up to six weeks of paid sick time a year that could be used as paid family leave. One might ask why this has taken six years, but more importantly, the question is why the United States is only one of four countries in the world to not give women paid leave to have babies. A recent statement by a government human resources official might explain this attitude.
Several months ago, a young pregnant friend, who left private law practice for the more "family-friendly" U.S. government, told me that she did not have enough sick leave to stay home for a month after she delivered her baby. When she asked her Human Resources Department about leave, the HR official said, "Look, we're not giving you time off to bond with your baby."
There it was. Not an apology or even a neutral statement, but a cynical statement from her employer. This statement confirmed the findings of the United Nations International Labor Organization that the United States is one of four countries -- along with Lesotho, Swaziland and Papua New Guinea -- that has no paid maternity leave. So, as soon as her sick leave runs out, she's back in her government office unless she chooses to live on no salary. As a single mother, that is not a choice.
In attempting to maintain our status as a superpower, perhaps the United States should come to the realization that a woman does not have to be sick to have a baby.
Most Members of Congress are parents. With a 2012 poll showing that 88% of Democrats and 73% of Republicans support paid parental leave, what is our Congress waiting for? Our President has two plus years left to put a few political chits into creating a policy to adopt a paid maternity leave policy -- even through an Executive Order. The best place for him to begin would be at home, with paid leave for his own government employees.
There is proposed legislation in our Congress to bring our country in line with the policies of most other countries. Many Congressional Democrats have supported a bill by New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D) and Connecticut Representative Rosa DeLauro (D) that would provide up to 12 weeks of paid parental leave by raising the payroll tax on employers and employees by 0.2 percentage points. No Republicans support the bill and the President, who favors paid parental leave, has not produced or endorsed any such legislation.
The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that in the private sector, the situation is not much better. Only eleven percent of these non-government workers get paid maternity leave at their job. How can parents, especially mothers, strive to become partners in firms, senior vice presidents in corporations, managers in service companies, if the message from the top is we really don't care enough about your families.
We have come a long way -- in the wrong direction -- in taking care of our children and families.
During World War II, the Federal Government sponsored day care for 400,000 preschool children. At that time, America needed mothers to work in industries producing war materials. In addition to these Federal child care centers, private companies such as Kaiser shipyards followed the U.S. Government and sponsored childcare centers. Open 24 hours a day, the Kaiser centers were models -- with a nurse on site for children who were ill, hot meals for mothers to take home with them, and the cost of the care was shared by parents and the Kaiser company. All of these centers closed when the War ended.
Our country had one other foray into providing for its parents and children. In 1972, Congress passed, with substantial bipartisan support, the Comprehensive Child Development Act. Importantly, this law would have created a national network of federally funded childcare centers. President Richard Nixon vetoed the bill, attacking the proposed legislation as implementing a "communal approach to child-rearing with "family weakening implications."
Since 1972, tens of millions of women have entered the U.S. workforce. But our maternal/family policies have pedaled back to pre-World War II days and we've placed our heads in the sand, ignoring the realities that families exist in our economy. We could start recognizing this reality by passing the Gillerbrand/ De Lauro bill to provide paid parental leave. The President could establish a Presidential Task Force comprised of public and private sector leaders to immediately create well-run and regulated child care centers. And while we are here, it is also public shame that Congress cannot agree to some form of the Fair Pay Act. This legislation would prohibit wage discrimination based on sex, race or national origin among employees for work in "equivalent jobs." This Act is essentially an extension of the 1963 Equal Pay Act, which is limited to sex-based discrimination in the same jobs.
A colleague in the Middle East was shocked to learn that the U.S. has a less generous policy on maternal and family leave than his Gulf country. "The next time my American friends comment on the deplorable status of women in my part of the world," he commented, "I will remind them even our Arab monarchies don't demand that woman be sick to deliver the future."