By Hannah Fierle
On Aug. 31, Gov. Tom Wolf announced a new paid parental leave policy that would take effect on October 15, offering Commonwealth employees “up to six weeks of paid parental leave to care for a child after a birth, adoption, or foster care placement.”
This is a first step in Pennsylvania towards providing paid parental leave to a number of employed people, but most Pennsylvanians remain stuck with the bare-bones coverage that the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) offers.
A robust reform of the state’s parental leave policy to guarantee a sufficient period of paid parental leave to ALL Pennsylvanians is long overdue.
If we want to ensure that all working Pennsylvanians have equal access to paid parental leave when they need it, I propose that we adopt the kind of system that most other Western countries have at the national level, by funding parental leave through a social insurance program that is gender-inclusive, offering full pay for a minimum of 18 weeks of leave.
Hear me out. As expensive as this might sound at first, there is actually plenty of precedent (yes, even in the United States) that supports the feasibility of this proposal.
A handful of states have already implemented paid leave policies through things like Temporary Disability Insurance Programs and Family Leave Insurance Programs that provide partial wage replacement for childcare related leave-taking, in some states for up to 52 weeks of leave.
Outside of the United States, on average our fellow OECD countries provide 18 weeks of paid leave to new mothers, but in some paid leave extends up to nine months (that’s 36 weeks).
Pennsylvanians need this kind of bold reform to leave-taking laws. 46.8% of us work for small businesses that don’t meet the standards for even FMLA coverage.
A quarter of us live far below the federal poverty line, making taking an unpaid leave financially disastrous or outright impossible. Single mothers and those who are the main breadwinners for their families are especially disadvantaged, especially among Black and Latina mothers. The current system we have is failing most Pennsylvania families and it must change.
The research on both mother and infant health in the weeks following childbirth indicates that lengthier and more supportive post-birth leaves are essential.
The more weeks of leave that mothers (and fathers) can take to care for their newborns correlates with a reduction in child and infant deaths and overall improves the mental and physical health of parents and newborns in the months following childbirth.
The bonds between new parents and their babies are also strengthened by lengthier leaves (the first year of a child’s life is considered to be one of the most important in creating the essential attachment relationships between them and their parents/guardians).
There’s also data that suggests that both families and businesses stand to benefit financially from this kind of socially funded parental leave system. Full salary payments ensure that no person is unable to take leave due to an unaffordable pay cut.
Making coverage universal ensures that the many Pennsylvanians who work for small businesses or in the private sector in general have access to coverage. And under a socially funded parental leave system, businesses wouldn’t have to shoulder the burden of the costs associated with leave taking.
The economy at large has seen growth in countries with universal paid parental leave. They’ve seen a marked increase in productivity by employees and increased labor market attachment by people thanks to their ability to take leave without the risk of losing their jobs. It’s also led to a greater participation in the workforce in general, but especially for women.
We live in an age where a pandemic has brought our healthcare and employment systems to their knees, exposing the many flaws and gaps in their coverage. But the inequities in access to safe and secure leave have been present for decades. It’s time for Pennsylvania to move towards a more functional parental leave system that works for everyone, not just the few.