As the public health crisis has unfolded, pregnant women have been forced to work without proper protective gear, with some choosing to quit rather than risk exposure to the coronavirus and contracting COVID-19. Many others will be among the 30 million American workers who have become unemployed without having any say about it. And some of those who are still working will reasonably fear any missed days could mean they’ll soon be laid off.
The good news is that a growing number of states, including New York, New Jersey and California, have passed family leave laws that can help. Parents in these states who have been regularly working can get benefits for a short time while caring for newborns or recently adopted children.
The laws address a major gap in American workplace policy. The United States is the only developed country that fails to guarantee paid parental leave to all workers.
Promoting gender equality
Nearly all developed countries guarantee mothers at least three months paid maternity leave, while fathers often receive a much shorter paternity leave. Some countries supplement this sex-specific structure by offering families an additional period of shared parental leave, which is also typically used by mothers.
The U.S. model is very different.
The state leave laws, and a similar policy that will soon cover most federal workers, provide each parent an equal and individual right to take paid time off without having to worry about losing their jobs.
For example, in New York state, moms are currently eligible for up to 10 weeks of partial wage replacement, and so are dads. Both members of a same-sex couple can qualify, so long as each is legally recognized as a parent.
This structure is designed to encourage fathers to take time off. Early evidence suggests it works. In California and Rhode Island, men account for almost 40% of parental leave claims. This rate is far above the average for industrialized countries of 18%, and very close to that of international leaders.
I agree it’s essential to encourage men to do their fair share of child care. The crisis highlights longstanding gender inequities, with moms being far more likely than dads to put work aside to meet the needs of their children who are suddenly at home full-time.
Half as much
The U.S. structure, however, disadvantages single-parent families, as they can claim only half as much time off as two-parent families. This is a significant problem because about 40% of U.S. births are to unmarried parents.
There are large disparities on the basis of race and ethnicity, education and income. In short, unmarried parents are particularly likely to be vulnerable workers, at heightened risk of losing their jobs during the pandemic.
Where unmarried parents are living together, or otherwise both involved in child care, it makes sense that each should be able to take parental leave. But many single parents, disproportionately women, raise children on their own, even from birth.
An alternative model
Other countries that set aside parental leave time for each parent address this issue by having special rules that apply to parents with sole custody. For example, in Iceland, mothers and fathers each get three months of leave, and either parent can use an additional three months. Single parents, however, can use the full nine months that a couple would be able to take.
As I will propose in a forthcoming paper, U.S. laws could be made more fair by allowing single parents to receive as many weeks of benefits as two-parent families. Or the laws could be changed to allow a single parent to share benefits with a different family member, such as a grandmother, who could help with care. Because the cost of providing benefits is spread through the tax system, this approach would provide much-needed support for single parents without placing an extra burden on individual employers.
Without a change like this, the nation’s approach to parental leave will continue to provide less help to the families who are likely to need it the most.
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