The United States is one of the only industrialized countries that fails to support new motherhood in any meaningful way. Take, for example, the lack of guaranteed paid family leave.
From a recent report published in In These Times:
Most people are aware that Americans have a raw deal when it comes to maternity leave. Perhaps they’ve heard about Sweden, with its drool-inducing 16 months of paid parental leave, or Finland, where, after about 9 months of paid leave, the mother or father can take—or split—additional paid “child care leave” until the child’s third birthday.
But most Americans don’t realize quite how out of step we are. It’s not just wealthy, social democratic Nordic countries that make us look bad. With the exception of a few small countries like Papua New Guinea and Suriname, every other nation in the world—rich or poor—now requires paid maternity leave… For women, still most often the primary caregivers of young children, this results in higher employment rates, which in turn translates to lower poverty rates among mothers and their children.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, only 13 percent of U.S. workers have access to any form of paid family leave. Women who work in low-income jobs more likely to require physical labor—the kinds of jobs women who just gave birth need a break from in order to heal property–are least likely to have access to paid leave.
States such as California, New Jersey and Rhode Island have paid family leave laws in the books. In Pennsylvania, which earned a “D” on family leave benefits from the National Partnership for Women & Families, several family leave bills have been introduced, but none have made any progress.
The Family Medical Leave Act provides 12 weeks of unpaid leave for workers in companies that employ at least 50 employees. Otherwise, there is no federal protection.
It’s little wonder that nearly one in four women surveyed by the authors of the report were forced to go back to work within two weeks of having a child, sometimes with C-section wounds not fully healed.
Paid leave is not just a matter of common sense in a society that supposedly values families: As In These Times reports, research shows time off can be a matter of life and death for children.
While revealing the harsh experiences of low-income working mothers struggling to patch together a little time to heal from giving birth before returning to work, the new report also highlights the fact that many women forced to immediately return to their jobs are also forced to stop breastfeeding because of the difficulty of pumping milk in their workplace.
Natasha Long had to go back to work three weeks after having her child in 2012. Knowing the health benefits of breast milk for her baby, Long was determined to continue nursing her child. Though the Affordable Care Act of 2010 requires employers provide reasonable break time and a clean private space to pump for hourly workers, In These Times reported that Long’s factory job in Mississippi didn’t have a lactation room.
“So when she was on breaks, she had to run out to her truck. She sat in the cab, worried that someone might see her, and pumped, while tears rolled down her face and over the plastic suction cups attached to her breasts.”
When fighting to reduce low-income women’s access to birth control and abortion, anti-choice conservatives frequently portray women as irresponsible people who should take responsibility for their choices. Yet, bills designed to help mothers support their children often go neglected in state legislatures dominated by the conservatives espousing this rhetoric.
Pennsylvania is currently considering a bill that could enable women like Natasha Long to continue breastfeeding after returning to work. It fills in some of the gaps in protection for breastfeeding workers that the Affordable Care Act left open, and would apply to salaried workers as well as “non-exempt” hourly workers.
Sanitary Conditions for Nursing Mothers (HB1100), sponsored by Rep. Mary Jo Daley, would require employers to provide a private, sanitary space and break time for employees who need to express breast milk. It is part of the Pennsylvania Agenda for Women’s Health, a package of evidence-based bills that address real problems faced by real Pennsylvania women.
Founded in 1974, the Women’s Law Project is the only public interest law center devoted to women’s rights in Pennsylvania. WLP is a founding member of the PA Campaign for Women’s Health, a growing collaboration of organizations and individuals calling for an end to ideological politics trumping common-sense policy solutions in Pennsylvania.
Text: Tara Murtha, WLP Staff