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Paid family leave is the Mother’s Day gift moms really need

What’s the best Mother’s Day gift New York State lawmakers could give? Paid family leave, guaranteed under state law.

Julia, a mom in Ithaca, adopted a baby born four months premature. Her daughter was on oxygen and a heart monitor for months, and needed almost daily medical checks. Julia’s employer let her take some accrued sick leave to manage her daughter’s care, but she had no paid family leave. Samantha, from New York City, gave birth by caesarean section and had an infected, painful wound when she resumed work eight weeks later. She had little sick leave, no paid family leave and couldn’t afford more unpaid time to recover.

Julia and Samantha are two of more than 60 parents I interviewed for a 2011 Human Rights Watch report (updated in 2015) on the negative impacts of the lack of paid family leave under law in the United States. The parents I interviewed recounted how short and unpaid leave from work after childbirth or adoption contributed to delaying immunizations and health visits for babies, postpartum depression and other health problems for mothers, and early cessation of breast-feeding. During unpaid leave, many went into debt, and some had to resort to public assistance and bankruptcy.

Some U.S. workers can take unpaid job-protected leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act to manage their or their family members’ serious health conditions and to bond with new children. But this law doesn’t protect nearly half of the workforce, and many who are eligible cannot afford to take unpaid leave. Only 12 percent of private industry workers have paid family leave benefits.

The United States is an extreme outlier in failing to guarantee national paid family leave. A 2014 International Labor Organization report found that of 185 countries, only the United States and Papua New Guinea lack paid leave for new mothers under law. Paid paternity leave for fathers is also on the rise, with 71 countries guaranteeing it. Some countries have additional paid parental leave, and many offer paid leave to handle family health crises.

Fortunately, New York State lawmakers are starting to pay attention to how the lack of paid family leave harms workers, businesses and the economy. Most of today’s workers will have family caregiving responsibilities at some point, whether for aging parents, a sick partner, a newborn baby or others.

An important bill is moving through the State Senate and Assembly to establish a paid family leave insurance program. This bill would provide workers in New York with up to 12 weeks of paid leave per year to bond with a new child, care for a seriously ill family member or address certain issues arising from military service. Workers would receive two-thirds of their average weekly wage while on leave, up to a cap. The benefit would be financed solely through employee payroll deductions of up to 45 cents per week.

Like other U.S. states that have family leave insurance programs (California, New Jersey and Rhode Island), New York has a temporary disability insurance system. This system could readily be adapted to administer paid family leave insurance.

Research from several states and many other countries shows that family leave insurance is good for employers, the economy, public health and equality. Paid family leave increases business productivity and reduces turnover costs. It also decreases infant mortality, increases immunization rates, lowers risk of postpartum depression and increases breast-feeding duration. A 190-country survey of work-family policies, including family leave, found that countries guaranteeing various forms of paid family leave had high levels of economic competitiveness.

Julia and Samantha saw firsthand how the lack of paid family leave hurts working families. In addition to suffering pain as she returned to work, Samantha stopped breast-feeding earlier than she wished, because she had nowhere to pump breast milk at work. She went into debt and defaulted on credit cards while she had no pay. Julia’s employer offered some flexibility, but she suffered extreme stress as she rationed her sick time down to the hour for her daughter’s care. Julia held off on addressing her own serious illness in remission, because she could not afford unpaid leave.

I caught up with Julia a few years after our interview, and she said her daughter was thriving and learning to read. I hope she can soon read a headline declaring that New York lawmakers have passed the paid family leave bill.

Janet Walsh is deputy women’s rights director at Human Rights Watch and the author of “Failing its Families: Lack of Paid Leave and Work-Family Supports in the U.S.”