Maryland mother Jasmine discusses being forced to find another job after giving birth to her child in the film “Zero Weeks,” which screened at Camden International Film Festival last weekend.
Maryland mother Jasmine discusses being forced to find another job after giving birth to her child in the film “Zero Weeks,” which screened at Camden International Film Festival last weekend.
When filmmaker Ky Dickens learned she was about to become a mother, her doctor advised her that she would need at least 12 weeks of maternity leave to heal after giving birth to her daughter. At the time, she considered herself well versed in public policy, but she had no idea that her employer didn’t have to allow her any time off even though she had been a committed employee for 10 years. Eventually, Dickens says that in order to take just six weeks of unpaid leave, she had to deplete her savings. Then she went back to work. Her wife could only take two days off.

“Though I thought I’d be ready, I wasn’t,” says Dickens in her film “Zero Weeks,” which screened at the Camden International Film Festival last weekend. “Physically, emotionally, it was the most difficult thing I had ever been through. I felt like my heart was living outside of my body and I was abandoning her.... We couldn’t be home when we most needed to be and we were the lucky ones.”

Dickens’ story is very common in a country where millions of Americans are regularly forced to choose between earning a living and spending time with a newborn, caring for a sick relative, or recovering from a serious illness. Under the federal Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), businesses with over 50 employees working more than 25 hours per week must provide at least 12 weeks of unpaid family leave. And under Maine law, employers with 15 or more workers are required to provide 10 weeks of unpaid leave, as long as the employee has been working at the same place for at least a year. However, only 60 percent of workers actually qualify for unpaid leave, and nearly half of those who are eligible don’t take the time off because they can’t afford to, according to the US Department of Labor.

But people in other wealthy countries don’t have the same level of stress that comes from a lack of leave time. That’s because the United States is one of the only developed countries in the world that doesn’t have a universal paid family leave (PFL) policy, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). Canada’s employment insurance program allows parents to receive as much as $543 per week when they take family leave, which they may extend to as long as 18 months for a lesser payment. Germans enjoy 57 weeks while Finns can take a whopping 167 weeks of PFL. But even much less wealthy countries have some form of paid maternity leave, including Iraq (9 weeks), Bangladesh (9 weeks), Ethiopia (13 weeks), Sudan (8 weeks), Afghanistan (13 weeks), Nigeria (6 weeks) and Laos (13 weeks). Among the 185 countries surveyed by the International Labour Organization, the US and Papua New Guinea are the only two nations without a paid parental leave policy. In 2016, only 14 percent of private-sector workers in the US had access to paid family and medical leave, according to the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics.

A Growing Movement for PFL

But in the past few decades, as more and more women have entered the workforce and households have become increasingly dependent on two incomes, a movement has been growing to “do away with workplace policies that belong in a Mad Men episode,” as former President Barack Obama once put it. As numerous studies indicate, America’s lack of family-friendly workplace policies could also be exacerbating the gender pay gap. The National Women’s Law Center estimates that 8 in 10 moms are working, and while women without children earn 90 cents for every dollar a man earns, mothers earn just 73 cents to a man’s dollar. For single mothers and women of color, the gender pay gap is even wider. And the reason for the disparity is because many working women also have the added responsibilities of caring for children or elderly relatives, says Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-New York) in “Zero Weeks.”

“Two-thirds of minimum-wage earners are women because too many of them get stuck on the sticky floor of not being able to earn enough seniority to increase their pay because every time a life event happens they start over again on the bottom rung,” said Gillibrand.

However, PFL policies benefit everyone, regardless of gender, says Maine Women’s Lobby Executive Director Eliza Townshend. “I think we automatically default to thinking this is about babies, but in fact every one of us knows somebody who has a major illness, a major challenge or is going through something awful,” she said. “Sooner or later, all of us need time off.”

Maine Alzheimer’s Association Executive Director Laurie Trenholm says many Mainers have to choose between keeping their jobs or caring for a parent or spouse, which makes it even more difficult because the primary care partner usually needs to keep their job for the health insurance.

“So it becomes really problematic really quickly because our disease is not something you can fix in a day or two,” said Trenholm. “If you need to be with your parent or spouse, it’s a longer-time proposition, so paid leave is not dissimilar to having a baby. You need more than a day or two.”

Trenholm said that because people can’t take time off for a sick family member, they often have to place their loved one in a long-term care facility earlier than they would like. And that comes at a steep price, as home care services cost approximately $50,000 per year and stays at an assisted living facility or nursing home in Maine fetch an annual cost of roughly $60,000 and $100,000, according to insurance company GenWorth Financial. Trenholm noted that Maine has the highest median age in the country, and the number of Mainers ages 65 to 74 is projected to increase by over 70 percent between now and 2020. She said that the long-term care industry is already suffering from a worker shortage, so the relatives of people with debilitating illnesses will need more flexibility to take time off to care for their loved ones.

“This isn’t simply the right thing to do, it’s also a cost-effective thing to do,” she added. “It allows people to stay working longer than they might otherwise, and we need them to stay working. We don’t need more people leaving the workforce.”

Businesses Join the Fight

As “Zero Weeks” director Ky Dickens noted in her film, there are a number of reasons why the United States still doesn’t have universal paid family leave, including “Quaker capitalism,” “good-old American individualism,” “an honorable fixation with our own bootstraps,” and, of course, lots of corporate lobbying. Last session, the Retail Lumber Association of Maine was one of the leading opponents of legislation that would have created a state-level paid family leave insurance program, arguing that it would make it harder to do business in the state.

“While paid family and medical leave insurance programs are advertised as free, they are not free to employers or employees,” said MRLA lobbyist Dan Riley. “Besides the additional administrative costs, such as record keeping and monitoring payroll deductions, employers would have to continue to pay non-wage benefits, including health care, during the six-weeks of paid leave. In addition, small employers may have to hire a temporary worker to fulfill the employee’s job duties while they are on leave.”

But other business owners, such as Jim Wellehan, owner of the Maine shoe retail chain Lamey Wellehan, says creating a public PFL policy is just the right thing to do.

“There’s a cost to everything, and we can either be decent places to work or indecent places to work,” said Wellehan. “You’ve got to have some kind of retirement benefit that works for people, you’ve got to have a reasonable rate of pay for people so they can live out of poverty.... I think we need to look at the thing holistically and say, ‘How do we all work together to make this place better?’ If we all had those costs and no one had a differential advantage, it would just be good for all.” 

And the news out of other states that have created PFL programs — California, Rhode Island,Washington, New Jersey and New York, and the District of Columbia — paints a much less gloomy picture than some opponents would suggest. California’s PFL program, which it began in 2004, allows new mothers and fathers six weeks of PFL to bond with a newborn child or for individuals to care for a sick child, spouse or parent.  Mothers can also take an additional six weeks leave under the state’s existing Temporary Disability Insurance (TDI) program. Under PFL, 55 percent of the employee’s usual pay is replaced, or up to $1,075 a week, according to the 2013 US Department of Labor report. The report noted that the PFL program is financed through a one-percent payroll tax levied on employees, which averages out to about $30 per year for each worker. 

The study’s authors, Ruth Milkman and Eileen Appelbaum, pointed out that the policy does not impose direct costs on employers, but small employers can face challenges when having to find a temporary replacement for an employee on leave. However, in a survey of 250 California firms, the authors also found that about 90 percent of the businesses said the law had “either a positive effect or no effect on productivity, profit, morale and costs.” Ninety percent of the respondents also reported that they had no experience with employees taking leave for reasons not intended under the law.  The report noted that mothers with PFL spent more time breastfeeding their children and were more likely to return to their jobs after taking leave rather than quitting. In a separate nationwide survey, The Bureau of Labor’s National Longitudinal Survey of Youth reported that women in states with PFL policies took an average of 22 more days of paid leave to recover from childbirth and to bond with their infants than states without the policy. Respondents were also less likely to receive public assistance. 

Paid Family Leave Policies Expand in the States

As the urgency grows for a comprehensive PFL program, the movement has garnered support from unlikely places. Even the president’s daughter, Ivanka Trump, has brought forward her own proposal that would require six weeks of paid family leave.

“By now, many are familiar with the benefits of paid family leave: Healthier children and parents in more tightly bonded families, greater financial stability and stronger attachment to the labor force are among the most important,” Ivanka Trump wrote in a July op-ed in the Wall Street Journal. “Providing a national guaranteed paid-leave program — with a reasonable time limit and benefit cap — isn’t an entitlement, it’s an investment in America’s working families.”

However, Ivanka Trump’s proposed policy would leave out people suffering from illnesses and those who need to care for a sick relative, and it’s also likely unworkable because it relies on the unemployment insurance program. However, there are other proposals on the table, including Sen. Gillibrand’s “Family and Medical Insurance Leave Act,” which would create a comprehensive national PFL insurance program that would provide 12 weeks of paid leave for workers in the entire country. Sen. Angus King has co-sponsored the “Strong Families Act,” which would “encourage” employers to provide 12 weeks of family leave to employees by offering businesses a 25-percent tax credit. Next year, Rep. Erin Herbig (D-Belfast) will be introducing LD 1587, which would establish a PFL program in Maine. 

While it appears unlikely that any progressive policy will pass this Congress or in Maine in the next year, veteran family leave activist Ellen Bravo, director of the the Family Values @ Work Consortium, says she’s optimistic that change is coming. After being in engaged in the debate for over 30 years, she says she’s seen more men join the movement as they want to take a more active role in caring for their children and parents than in previous generations. And she also says she’s seen more businesses warm up to the idea and break away from the corporate lobbyists who claim to represent the business community. 

“In some way the opposition hasn’t changed their argument much. You know, ‘the sky will fall, businesses will flee, it will undo all good things,’” Bravo told The Free Press. “They said the same thing about unpaid family leave or passing a minimum wage or ending child labor. But what has changed a lot is that there are now business partners in every one of our coalitions, and there are many small-business people and large-business people who can add their voices and speak up to try to change public policy.”

She noted that she first began working to pass unpaid leave policies in the states before President Bill Clinton finally signed the federal Family and Medical Leave Act in 1993. Her group is using a similar strategy to pass paid family leave. Currently, the  Family Values @ Work Consortium’s partners believe they have a good chance of passing legislation in Massachusetts, Connecticut, Vermont and Oregon.

“This used to be a much more partisan issue, and now you see Republicans also saying we need this,” said Bravo. “I think there are conservatives who understand that if you’re going to talk about family values, you’re going to have to make sure that you value families and don’t punish them for being a good child to their parent or a good parent to their child. I think more and more people are seeing this not just as good policy, but good politics.” 

Bravo says the most effective tools activists can use to influence lawmakers are their own personal stories of what it meant when they could take time off when they needed it or the consequences when they didn’t have paid leave. 

“I’ve never agreed when people talk about apathy,” she added. “The problem is disenfranchisement. People feel like that’s just the way it is — my boss isn’t going to change, the government isn’t going to change, and I certainly don’t have the power to make them change. Getting people to believe it is possible to make change and they are the agents of that change when they work together, that’s what really makes the difference.”