The Case for 12 Weeks Minimum Leave

Young couple at home relaxing with their new born child on couch
Young couple at home relaxing with their new born child on couch

As a result of legislation passed last week, New York is poised to become the best state in our country to bond with a new child, nurse a seriously ill relative, or ease the passing of a beloved family member. It's not the first state to guarantee paid family leave, but it is the first to recognize that employees' time off should last up to 12 weeks.

The U.S. stands alone among industrialized countries in having no national paid leave policy. Only 13 percent of workers here receive such a benefit through their employer. While many companies do a terrific job, at least for mothers who give birth, most do very little. And smaller employers are often unable to provide this benefit on their own.

Fortunately, support is building for a solution: a social insurance fund that pools small contributions to make it possible for those on leave to keep drawing a significant portion of their salary. Three states -- California, New Jersey and Rhode Island -- already have such programs, and a growing body of evidenceshows they work well for individuals and families as well as for businesses. New York will become the fourth state with paid family leave. And several more, including Massachusetts, are currently considering legislation to be next.

But the lack of standardized policies nationally begs the key questions: How many weeks, for which employees, and who should decide?

Setting a standard, or at least a goal, for the amount of leave parents and others receive is one area that should not be left to employer discretion or political deal-making. Instead, it is a highly consequential decision that should be based on the best interests of the child and the needs of the parents. Fortunately, there's a consensus on this count among the experts, such as Dr. Benard Dreyer, President of the American Academy of Pediatrics.

"Infancy is a critical period for child health and development," Dr. Dreyer explains. "The American Academy of Pediatrics supports legislation providing 12 weeks of paid family leave, but I must stress that this is really a very modest minimum. Research tells us that while at least 12 weeks of paid leave is essential, there are dividends the longer it is. "

That modest minimum is crucial for bonding, breastfeeding, well-baby visits and making an infant feel loved and secure, among other things. Furthermore, the vast majority of adopted children are not infants. Most come from foster care or other countries. Parents who adopt older children (who sometimes have special needs or are in sibling groups) often require even more time and resources to bond with and attend to their new sons' and daughters' needs.

Many parents in the U.S. who follow the 12-week time-off recommendation, however, find themselves in financial upheaval as a result.

To the extent that employers do provide paid leave, the playing field is not a level one for adoptive families. Many companies, for instance, offer fewer weeks off for parents who adopt than for those who form their families biologically, and some offer no time at all. This practice is both unfair and unwise social policy. We all have a stake in these families' success.

A coalition in New York State, which organized for several years to pass paid family leave, stood fast on the 12-week goal. So did Governor Cuomo. The budget bill passed in Albany last week phases in the leave, beginning with 8 weeks in 2018 and reaching 12 by 2021. In his State of the State speech, Cuomo said he regretted not having spent more time with his father at the end of his life and, to reinforce this policy priority, he brought in Vice President Joe Biden, who had just lost a son.

They clearly illustrated that paid leave is the right thing to do for most people - not just new parents. Remember the photograph of Mark Kelly sitting by the bedside of his wife, Gabby Giffords, holding her hands in those awful first weeks after she was shot? According to Dr. Stephan Mayer, director of the Neurological Intensive Care Unit at Columbia University Medical Center, "The common denominator [for healing from traumatic brain injury] is a present, loving and supportive family. I can't say how important it is to have your loved ones around you helping you battle through."

We need to reset our sights, away from the zero weeks of paid leave most of us currently get, and to the best practices of a minority of companies and of our economic competitors. Twelve weeks is a modest minimum of time to care for a loved one in need and for parents of all kinds. It's the least we can do for our children and families.

Ellen Bravo directs Family Values @ Work, a network of coalitions in 24 states working for policies like paid sick days and family and medical leave insurance.

Adam Pertman is President of the National Center on Adoption and Permanency and author of "Adoption Nation."