This month New York’s paid family leave comes into full force, providing protected time off for employees during key family moments. Considering the United States is the only developed country in the world with no federally mandated policies for new parents (and one of only four countries without it at all), states are stepping up to the plate to provide protections that should be enforced at a federal level. New York’s Paid Family Leave project ensures that you can have protected time off to “bond with a newly born, adopted, or fostered child; care for a close relative with a serious health condition; or assist loved ones when a family member is deployed abroad on active military service.” The rights will be phased in over the next four years, but a portion of the benefits start this month.
It seems like common sense that these are times in their lives that people should be entitled to—times in which people can focus on creating or taking care of their family. But for so many in the U.S., that’s just not the case. Here’s what you need to know about mandated leave in the U.S. and why New York’s Paid Family Leave project is so important.
It’s Too Uncommon
New York may now have family leave, but one of the reasons why it’s so newsworthy is also one of the most depressing aspects of it—it’s one of only four states that have passed and implemented paid family leave. California first made the move in 2004; New Jersey followed suit in 2009, along with Rhode Island. Now, the amount of compensation and time you are eligible to take varies from state to state. In New Jersey, for example, you can receive 60 to 70 percent of your wages for up to six weeks, while in Rhode Island you can receive up to four weeks paid leave—but with a maximum compensation of $752 per week.
With only four states offering some form of paid leave, that means that in 46 states there is…nothing. That is shocking. Without federal mandates, it’s up to states to put in legislation in place. And it looks like more of them are—it’s heartening that some states, like Massachusetts, are considering family and/or medical leave bills. There are signs of momentum in the right direction, but there’s still a long way to go. The majority of workers in the U.S. are not protected—and that’s a problem.
It’s Not Just About Compensation
The financial part of the paid leave is essential—it allows families to survive without working during crucial moments like having a child. But family leave isn’t just about financial support. These policies provide job security: They guarantee that women will have a job to come back to if they choose to take time off. And for some, that’s life-changing.
"For low-income women, paid family leave means the end of the impossible choice between being there for your family when they need you the most—when a new child arrives or a health crisis looms—and the job that pays the bills," Molly Williamson, staff attorney at a Better Balance, an organization that advocates for and educates about the law, tells Refinery29. "The ability to take the leave you need also has major health and economic benefits that continue throughout women's lives, from reduced postpartum depression to increased attachment to the workforce."
Many women face an unspeakable choice of either missing early chances to bond with a vulnerable baby or becoming unemployed—and, ultimately, having no way of supporting their child. Nearly one in four women return to work two weeks after giving birth. Many of them are still struggling with stitches, bleeding, and horrific pain. Guaranteed leave means no woman is forced into that position.
We Still Lag Behind Other Countries
To understand how important the fight at home is, we need to look abroad. It’s not just that the U.S. is one of only four countries not to offer statutory paid maternity leave—though that in itself is shocking and embarrassing. The truth is, even though the efforts being made by states like New York are heroic in comparison to other places in the United States, even the best state policies here don't compare with what’s available abroad. Finland offers pay for seven weeks before the baby is due and for 16 weeks after—as well as eight weeks of paid paternity leave. In Denmark, the government covers 52 weeks of pay and, though not necessarily all of it is at full salary, that’s still an entire year. Sweden is just as generous. Even in the UK, most employees can take up to a year off for maternity leave—39 weeks of which include some form of pay.
That’s not to discount the huge efforts being made by state legislators in the U.S. to change a truly awful status quo. But we need to keep some perspective—in so many places around the world a year off to be with your baby is normal. You’ll receive some pay and, most important, you’ll know your job is there when you get back. That’s what we should be aiming for.
New York’s Paid Family Leave project is groundbreaking—but it shouldn’t be. Basic family leave for births, illnesses, and deaths, should be considered a basic right. No woman should be forced back into work within days of giving birth. Yes, New York has done something progressive, but it’s only a step in a very long journey.