FMLA: 20 Years of Building Bonds Between Babies and Parents, Time Now For Paid Leave!

February 13, 2013

By Emily Firgens

Last week marked the twentieth anniversary of the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), which has offered millions of workers access to up to 12 weeks of unpaid, job-protected leave. More than 100 million workers have accessed this leave to take care of newborns, family members and themselves. As we celebrate FMLA 20 years later, we are also reminded of how far the U.S. still has to go in offering paid leave and fully supporting the needs of children and families.

While the FMLA has set an important precedent for parental leave, the U.S. remains the only industrialized nation without a national paid family leave program that helps support workers when they need time off to care for a new baby, sick family member, or themselves. A lack of a paid family leave policy has left workers struggling to meet the needs and expectations of both work and family. Low-income people in particular often work in jobs that provide few family-support benefits, making the demands of family and job even more challenging to meet.

The National Center for Children in Poverty (NCCP) zeroes in on the effects of maternal employment and parental leave policies on "child health, child cognitive and emotional development, maternal health, and the health of parental relationships." NCCP's brief highlights research findings showing that mothers who take paid family leave are more likely to breastfeed for longer and at higher rates, which leads to positive health outcomes for both child and mother. Additionally, paid family leave policies are associated with lower infant and child mortality rates, higher birth weight, more well-baby doctors' visits, and complete immunizations. More parental time with babies also has positive social and cognitive benefits for children including higher cognitive scores, better bonding with parents, and increased parental responsiveness to child's cues. Moms who receive paid family leave show lower rates of depression, and more complete physical recovery from childbirth.

A recent event sponsored by the American Institutes for Research and ZERO TO THREE to recognize the anniversary of the Act, emphasized the importance of paid leave for infants and parents. During the event, experts outlined how a federally initiated paid leave program could build off of the existing FMLA to offer parents 14 weeks -or 16 weeks if both parents opt to take time off-of job-protected paid leave in addition to the 12 weeks of unpaid leaved FMLA provides. While the prospects of Congress passing such a proposal anytime soon do not seem promising, paid leave is policy that both parties should be able to support.

While the federal government has yet to pass legislation guaranteeing paid time off, states are acting on this important issue. New Jersey and California both offer paid leave policies. New Jersey and California's family leave insurance programs are funded entirely by very small employee contributions of less than one-half of one percent of wages. These states recognize that the benefits to babies and parents are overwhelming and long-lasting. It's now time that we start supporting paid leave, including parental leave, at the national level.

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