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It’s Long Past Time for the US to Implement Paid Family and Medical Leave

We must see low-income parents, caregivers and child care providers as human beings with essential needs.

So far, 11 states and the District of Columbia have comprehensive paid family and medical leave policies in place.

Part of the Series

When I booked my trip to Australia to visit family during the winter of 2018, I had no idea this would be my last international trip as a childfree adult. Days before my flight to Adelaide, my pregnancy was confirmed by my OB-GYN. This confirmation marked a new phase of growth not only in my personal life, but also in my professional and political commitments.

At lunch with my cousin by a jetty in Adelaide, I shared my due date and explained that I was now working on a parental leave policy for my organization, SisterSong. We’re a reproductive justice organization that for years relied on FMLA (up to 12 weeks of leave provided for under the Family and Medical Leave Act) before my arrival. By this time, we knew we were overdue for an update to our leave policy. As I looked at other policies from grassroots organizations and large private companies, it was clear the values of reproductive justice needed to be reflected in our policy. The reproductive justice framework is defined by SisterSong as the human right to maintain personal bodily autonomy, have children, not have children and parent the children we have in safe and sustainable communities. It is through this lens that we were able to create our current parental leave policy.

I asked my cousin to share her company’s parental leave policy with me, just out of curiosity. Their policy was comparable to those of companies and organizations I reviewed in the U.S.: Sixteen weeks paid for an eligible primary care providing employee, and two weeks for the secondary caregiver of a child. However, I was shocked to learn that Australia’s government provides parental leave pay for a maximum of 18 weeks at the national minimum wage (about $14) for working parents. My cousin was equally shocked to learn the U.S. government provides no parental paid leave. During my research I found that on the high end, Netflix Corporation offers one full year paid leave. As a birth justice advocate, I knew there are studies showing at least one year is needed to have a “full” recovery after giving birth, so that’s exactly where companies and our government should begin. But what resources are there for those that have no company policy or government assistance to depend on for their recovery and caretaking needs?

In my work within the reproductive justice movement, I’ve come across countless families and single parenting adults that are faced with the reality of getting back to work after just two weeks or even less. At two weeks after giving birth, my midwife had just begun to allow me to get out of bed and walk up and down stairs. Then the healing process began from there. And that’s a birth without complications or a C-section. In addition to the physical healing that needs to occur, mental health impacts are also an area of concern after childbirth. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s research shows 1 in 8 women experience postpartum depression related symptoms within the first year after giving birth. Where’s the space for managing mental health impacts and bodily recovery for difficult birthing experiences?

There’s a saying from Mahatma Gandhi — “The true measure of any society can be found in how it treats its most vulnerable members.” In the United States, Black women are dying in childbirth at alarming rates. Health care is still not seen as a basic human right, and capitalists refuse to see low-income parents, caregivers and child care providers as human beings with essential needs.

My personal birthing experience was ideal. I had direct access to a doula and a community midwife. Both centered my own cultural values and methods of childbirth and honored my bodily autonomy to decide where and how I gave birth. I was provided paid leave for a suitable amount of time to recover. I received my full salary while on leave, which left us with no financial burden. The calm and relief I felt every morning, only having to concern myself with the well-being of my child, was a privilege — one I know every birthing person deserves. This experience, and my visit to Australia, became the catalyst for expanding my vision of reproductive justice to include the fight for federal paid family and medical leave programs.

Organizations like A Better Balance, Black Mamas Matter Alliance, 9to5 and Family Values at Work are organizing to create policies for paid family and medical leave on the state and federal levels. So far, 11 states and the District of Columbia have comprehensive paid family and medical leave policies in place. These programs provide pay to workers taking time off to recover from their own serious health condition, care for a seriously ill loved one or bond with a new child. None of these policies are implemented in the U.S. South, where a large population of residents are Black, Indigenous and people of color. In a world where a Black birthing person in the United States is three times more likely to die from a pregnancy-related cause than their white counterpart, one is left to wonder who’s getting prioritized and where these types of policies are passed.

When I asked organizers leading this work what pushback they receive on paid family and medical leave policies, the common thread is legislators feel a federal parental paid leave policy would be fiscally irresponsible or too expensive. In the U.S., 52 percent of maternal deaths happen during the postpartum period. Within that, Black women are three and a half times more likely to die six weeks to one year after giving birth. I believe the lives of a birthing people and children are priceless. So, I ask: too expensive for who exactly?

Speaking with Family Values at Work’s executive director, Josephine Kalipeni, gave me great insight to how a “Comprehensive Care Program” could look across the U.S. I asked if she had a magic wand, what we could expect in such a policy. Josie mentioned the following: affordable child care, a living wage for all, affordable health care, federal paid family and medical leave of six months or more with job protections, wages for caregivers of aging family members, affordable home health care for aging family members, and paid sick and safe days.

We must fight to make Josie’s dream of a federal paid leave policy for families everywhere a reality. This country must reassess its values and come to understand that all families deserve access to affordable health care — that aging parents deserve to transition with dignity and their loved ones without financial burden. Until then, SisterSong and the rest of the reproductive justice movement will continue to fight for these human rights.