Commentary

We’re failing our workers: Pa. needs paid family & medical leave | Opinion

Only 19% of the U.S. workforce has access to paid family leave through their employer, with low-wage workers even less likely to have it compared to their high-wage counterparts

Photo by Ingrid LaManna via Flickr Commons

By Melissa Weiler Gerber 

Imagine you are a new parent welcoming a child into your life — either by birth or adoption. There are few moments in life more important, more stressful, more joyful, or more terrifying. Navigating infancy and early childhood is a roller coaster, filled with highs and lows for both parents and their children.

Now imagine you’re asked to ride that roller coaster with two wheels missing, no safety harness, and a dangerously bent track ahead of you. It sounds terrifying, but as it stands, that’s exactly what lawmakers in Pennsylvania and across the country are asking new parents to do. We’re sending families hurtling down the tracks of new parenthood without basic, fundamental supports in place.

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Specifically, we’re referring to the lack of paid family and medical leave policy at either the state or federal level. Paid leave would allow working Pennsylvanians to take critical time off to care for themselves or a loved one in the event of a serious health need, or the birth or adoption of a child.

And while this policy would also ensure paid leave to provide care for an aging parent, a child with a serious medical condition, or a partner following major surgery, the Pennsylvania Perinatal Partnership (PPP), is particularly concerned with the dangerous impact the lack of paid leave has on our Commonwealth’s new parents and their families.

The PPP, a statewide collaborative group comprised of professionals, organizations, and government agencies in Pennsylvania that support the health and wellness of Pennsylvanians throughout the perinatal and postpartum periods, and while parenting young children, believes paid family and medical leave is a vital part of overall health and wellbeing.

As it stands, only 19% of the U.S. workforce has access to paid family leave through their employer, with low-wage workers even less likely to have it compared to their high-wage counterparts. In our experience, that leads to the all-too-familiar sight of new parents returning to work as early as two weeks postpartum, simply because they can’t afford to take the time off work to recover and spend time with their infant.

When this happens, everyone suffers. Infants lose out on an absolutely critical period they need to bond with parents and ensure healthy early development. Parents are forced to return to work right when their bodies and mental health are at their most fragile. It’s little wonder that the U.S.’s pregnancy-associated death rate is nearly three times higher than any other developed country, with Pennsylvania ranking 21st in the nation. Or that, heartbreakingly, Pennsylvania ranks 29th in infant mortality as well.

Sadly, those outcomes only become worse for Black families and other families of color. For example, In Pennsylvania, Black women account for 23% of pregnancy-related deaths, yet only make up 14% of total births; Black women who do not identify as Hispanic made up 43% of births in Philadelphia from 2013-2018, but accounted for 73% of the pregnancy-related deaths. Black infants in Pennsylvania are twice as likely to die than white infants before their first birthday.

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Inclusive paid family leave policies help us tackle these heartbreaking, entrenched, and wildly disparate outcomes. Federally, paid leave is part of the “Build Back Better” spending package currently being debated in Congress. In Pennsylvania, the Family Care Act is bipartisan, bicameral legislation that has been introduced at the state level to allow working Pennsylvanians to recover following a serious medical condition. The PPP supports both pieces of legislation, which would allow all workers in the U.S. to access this fundamental resource.

Simply put, paid leave programs work. In states that already have programs in place, people who take paid leave after giving birth are less likely to need rehospitalization, more likely to report better mental and physical health, and more likely to be successful with breast/chest-feeding.

And a 10-week extension of paid parental leave was found to reduce infant mortality rates by 2.5% and child mortality rates up to age 5 by 3%.

With both the Family Care Act and federal paid leave policy, elected officials have the opportunity to help our new parents and their infants — and even save lives. Let’s pass this legislation now, and get our Pennsylvania families off to the healthiest start.

Melissa Weiler Gerber is the president and CEO of AccessMatters. She writes on behalf of the Pennsylvania Perinatal Partnership, a program of AccessMatters.

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