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Why San Francisco's new parental leave policy is a big deal

Apr 8, 2016

Credit surlygirl / flickr creative commons / HTTP://J.MP/1SPGCL0

When I had my youngest daughter in 2012, I stayed home for 10 weeks before returning to work.

And when it was time to go back, I definitely wasn't ready to leave her.

The only thing that made it easier was that I had family who could watch my newborn baby, so I didn't have to worry about whether I could trust who she was with while I was gone.

I also counted myself lucky because I got paid – well, partially paid – for six of those weeks. And my husband was able to make up for my lost wages so I could take off another month.

My husband, on the other hand, didn't get paternity leave. He had to go back to work the night she was born.

But a lot of new parents aren't as lucky as I was.

In the United States, new parents aren’t guaranteed any paid time off. Instead, if they have worked for a certain amount of time at a company with 50 or more employees, they are guaranteed the ability to take 12 unpaid weeks off for the arrival of a new child.

Some employers, and some state laws, make it so more mothers can be paid during an extended leave after the birth of a child. And according to the Families and Work Institute, only 14% of U.S. employers offer paid time off for new fathers.

This week, San Francisco made a major decision regarding parental leave, becoming the first U.S. city to pass a law guaranteeing six weeks of leave for new moms and dads working for companies with 20 or more employees.

California already has a state insurance program that pays workers 55 percent of their normal wages to take time off after the birth or adoption of a child, or to care for a sick family member. The San Francisco law requires that employers make up the balance of the employee's pay so that they earn 100 percent of their normal wages.

Research has shown that having parents at home for the beginning of baby's life is beneficial. Here are three big reasons why:

1. Paid parental leave leads to healthier babies. It can reduce infant mortality by as much as 10%. Researchers say factors like reduced maternal stress, ability to breast feed longer, and more time to seek medical attention for their infants are probable factors. According to a 2011 study, women who had paid leave breast fed twice as long as women who didn't take leave. Babies who are breast fed are less likely to get a variety of infections and are at a lower risk for asthma, obesity, and sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS). It also increases the likelihood of infants getting well-baby care visits and vaccinations.

2. It can also lead to healthier moms. There can be mental health effects of having job-protected, paid leave after the birth of a child. In one study, women who took longer than 12 weeks' maternity leave reported fewer depressive symptoms, a reduction in severe depression and improvement in their overall mental health. 

3. There are economic benefits, especially for women. Economists have found that with paid leave, more people take time off, particularly low-income parents who may have taken no leave or dropped out of the work force after the birth. Paid leave raises the probability that mothers return to employment later, and then work more hours and earn higher wages.

The U.S. is the only developed country that doesn’t guarantee paid maternity or parental leave to workers. It’s an often-cited statistic, but one which should continue to shock us.

How do other countries shape up when it comes to parental leave? Check out the map below:

Credit The New York Times