Vernita Mouzon rushed back to work several weeks after her first child was born four years ago. Like almost nine out of 10 American workers, she didn’t have paid family leave from her job at a law firm.
When she got pregnant earlier this year, Mouzon, who now works for a Johns Hopkins surgeon, started trying to save vacation and sick days to use after her baby arrived. But this summer, at a “baby shower” for expecting employees, Hopkins announced a new benefit: four weeks off at full pay after having or adopting a child, with birth mothers getting another six weeks for recovery.
“Just knowing you have time to spend with your baby and to heal and not worry about losing pay or losing your job — this is awesome,” says Mouzon, 31, a senior medical coordinator.
The Parkville resident is so grateful for the new policy, which took effect July 1, that she plans to stay in touch with her temporary replacement while on leave, to help make sure the office runs smoothly in her absence.
“You take care of those who take care of you,” she says.
Research on paid family leave bears this out: Employees who benefit from leave are found to be more loyal and productive, and it leads to the improved health and development of children. Polls show broad support for paid leave, cutting across political party lines.
And yet both Maryland and the U.S. as a whole lag behind most of the developed world when it comes to laws that require workplaces to offer paid time off for family needs.
Currently, only three states — California, New Jersey and Rhode Island — have paid family leave laws in effect, while New York, Washington state and the District of Columbia have passed measures that will be implemented in the coming years.
Meanwhile, Maryland legislators passed a bill in April requiring that workers get at least five paid sick days a year — which, along with vacation time, is what employees often use when they don’t have family leave — but it was vetoed by Gov. Larry Hogan. While the bill passed by the General Assembly would have applied to companies with 15 or more full-time employees, the governor proposed legislation that would have set a higher threshold of 50-plus workers, with tax credits to entice smaller businesses to offer the leave.
Some business groups opposed the measure as costly, especially for small companies. The costs of replacement workers, additional record-keeping and potential fines for any violations could prove burdensome, says Larry Richardson, the Maryland Chamber of Commerce’s vice president for governmental affairs.
“It’s a well-intentioned bill that had onerous consequences,” he says. Richardson says he hopes business interests and those who support paid leave can work together to come up with a compromise.
Advocates, however, say the bill passed by state legislators already represents past compromises. They vow to seek an override of Hogan’s veto when the legislature convenes for its annual 90-day session in January. Democrats who lead the Assembly have already pledged to prioritize overturning the Republican governor’s veto.
“We’re moms; we don’t give up,” says Ruth Martin, national director for workplace justice campaigns for Moms Rising, which was among the groups that fought for the Maryland bill. “This is an idea whose time has come.”
That seemed particularly true when first daughter and presidential adviser Ivanka Trump made it a signature initiative. Republican President Donald J. Trump’s 2018 budget included a requirement that new parents receive six weeks of paid leave and estimated it would cost $25 billion a year.
But the issue has taken a back seat as health care, immigration and the investigation into Russian involvement in Trump’s election have consumed much of the oxygen in Washington instead. Plus, the Trump proposal has drawn fire from both liberals and conservatives.
More progressive groups say six weeks is not enough, and that any leave plan needs to cover not just new parents but employees who need time to care for aging parents, other ailing relatives or themselves should they fall ill. Conservatives, on the other hand, decried the creation of a costly government program.
“Once an entitlement is codified, it expands,” The Wall Street Journal opined in an editorial in May. “Wait until the Democrats double or triple the duration of the leave, which they will do as soon as they are in power.”
Ivanka Trump countered in a letter to the editor in July citing studies on the benefits and framing a paid-leave mandate as sound economic policy.
“It’s an investment in America’s working families,” she wrote.
If that’s the case, other countries put more stock in their employees. Women on average get 18 weeks of paid maternity leave around the time of childbirth in the 35 developed, free-market member countries of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, or OECD, of which the U.S. is a part. They receive on average more than 50 percent of their salary during leave. Additionally, most OECD countries offer parental and home care leave on top of that, and on average a new mother has access to a total of more than a year off.
(A note about terminology: While advocates these days generally refer to “family leave,” which is gender-neutral and usually refers to time off for a new child or to care for a relative, the most research has been done on maternity leave. According to the OECD, paternal benefits are generally newer and sometimes less generous to fathers, and men tend to take less time off than mothers do.)
Such largesse is foreign to most U.S. employees. Some individual companies do offer generous leave policies, especially those in the tech sector that compete to attract and retain top talent. But as the OECD reports, the U.S. is “the only country to offer no statutory entitlement to paid leave on a national basis.”
The last U.S. law to even address the leave issue dates back to 1993, when President Bill Clinton signed the Family and Medical Leave Act. It provides workers with 12 weeks of job-protected leave but does not mandate it be paid.
Currently, just 13 percent of American workers have access to paid family leave, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, and they’re largely concentrated in the professional, white-collar sectors. Construction, retail and hospitality workers, by contrast, are less likely to receive similar benefits.
A federal law would help reduce what Aparna Mathur, resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute think tank, calls a “huge inequity.”
Mathur co-authored a recent study on paid family leave that AEI conducted with the Brookings Institution. The collaboration was purposeful, uniting two think tanks from different parts of the political spectrum — AEI more right- and Brookings more left-leaning — to reflect how support for paid family leave cuts across partisan lines.
“The problem is getting people to agree on the details,” says Mathur, a former economics professor at the University of Maryland College Park. “How much of a cost are you willing to bear for it?”
Generally speaking, Mathur says, conservatives argue against creating a new entitlement or new tax to fund paid leave, while liberals would push for generous benefits to the largest possible group.
Mathur, who co-directed the year-long study with Isabel V. Sawhill, a Brookings senior fellow, says even their working group of experts in the field had difficulty finding consensus.
They issued a compromise proposal, acknowledging that no one was entirely pleased with it. It calls for paid parental leave for mothers and fathers, at a wage-replacement rate of 70 percent capped to $600 a week, for eight weeks. It would be budget-neutral, paid for by a payroll tax and by cutting spending or tax expenditures elsewhere without adversely affecting the poor.
“This is a basic floor,” Mathur says, and one that shouldn’t prevent states from enacting more generous measures.
She believes “there’s reason for optimism” given Trump’s support for the issue, but also cause for concern that partisan gridlock will hinder the development of a new federal mandate.
“How many Republicans will come on board? And will Democrats say ‘We want a more generous program — otherwise we won’t sign on?’ ” Mathur says. “The political reality is what it is.”
Family leave around the world
Paid family leave policies vary greatly among the 35 member countries of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. Here’s a sampling of the paid leave available to mothers in five of them:
Estonia: 85 weeks
Japan: 35.8 weeks
Canada: 27.4 weeks
Australia: 7.6 weeks
U.S.: 0 weeks
Source: OECD Family Database