Babies – and Baby Steps
August 22, 2023
A British woman I know, who lives in California, recently gave birth to her first child. Her employer, Google, granted her six months of paid parental leave to care for her new baby.
“Wow, that is so generous,” I told her, thinking back to the 1970s when I was given zero paid maternity leave for my first child and only a few weeks of paid leave for the second. “Yes, it’s wonderful,” my friend replied. Then she added: “You have to remember, though, that I grew up in the U.K., where we are entitled to a full year of paid maternity leave.” Indeed. It all depends on your perspective.
The perspective of the United States government, however, is that American women who want to have babies are pretty much on their own. Ours is, shamefully, one of eight countries in the entire world that doesn’t guarantee paid family leave – and the other seven are mostly island nations in the Pacific Ocean.
This means that in the U.S., for now, the onus is on private industry and individual state governments to fill the gap. But only about 24 percent of the private sector workforce today has access to paid family leave, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Well, then, what about the states?
Earlier this summer, Maine became the 13th state to require paid family and medical leave. The others are California, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Massachusetts, Maryland, Illinois, New Jersey, New York, Oregon, Rhode Island, and Washington state, as well as Washington, D.C.
In Maine, the law will apply to businesses with 15 or more employees. Workers and employers would split a wage contribution to fund the program that amounts to 1 percent or less of an employee’s wage. Once the employee reaches a designated contribution amount, they would be eligible for up to 12 weeks of paid leave per year for “qualifying life events,” such as the birth of a child or care for an aging family member. Most of the laws in the other 12 states have a similar structure.
In South Carolina, there is good news on this front, as well. In May 2023, legislation was signed providing access to six weeks of paid parental leave for the state’s 55,000 public school educators. Previously, teachers had to sacrifice their income, spend their savings, or use their sick days in order to take off the time to bond with their new infant. (Or, they had to try to time the birth for the summer months, when school is not in session. Kind of like playing lotto.)
This new SC legislation is a good start, of course, but it’s only a baby step. Much more comprehensive legislation is needed that would help all families.
Studies have shown that women legislators and women members of boards and commissions tend to be more attuned to, and supportive of, the needs of their female constituents because they know intimately what those needs are. In fact, they live them. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the lead co-sponsor of the Maine bill, Sen. Mattie Daughtry, is female. So is the governor, Janet Mills, who signed the bill into law.
Slowly but surely, baby steps are being taken and progress is being made in this area in South Carolina and other states. If more women win seats in the SC Legislature, those steps are bound to increase.
And if more women are elected to the U.S. Congress, we might finally join the rest of the Western world and pass federal legislation that mandates paid family leave for all its citizens.
Jan Collins is a Columbia, South Carolina-based journalist, editor, and author. A former Nieman Fellow at Harvard and former Congressional Fellow in Washington, D. C., she is the coauthor of Next Steps: A Practical Guide to Planning for the Best Half of Your Life (Quill Driver Books, 2009).