While the United States is one of the wealthiest countries in the world, it’s the only industrialized nation — and one of six countries in the world — without paid federal leave policies for new parents. Americans were reminded of that last weekend when former Vice President Mike Pence took a jab at Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg during his remarks at the annual white-tie Gridiron Dinner for journalists in D.C.
In what was reportedly meant to be a joke, Pence seemed to imply that recent transportation woes were due to Buttigieg taking two months of parental leave in 2021 so he could care for his newborns, Penelope and Joseph ("Gus"), both of whom had been hospitalized for several weeks with the respiratory virus RSV.
“When Pete’s two children were born, he took two months maternity leave whereupon thousands of travelers were stranded in airports, the air traffic system shut down and airplanes nearly collided on our runways,” Pence said at the dinner. “Pete is the only person in human history to have a child and everyone else gets postpartum depression.”
Pence’s remarks didn’t sit well with the Biden administration, which, on Monday, called on Pence to apologize, noting that the former VP's comment was "homophobic," and that it was in bad taste to use “women suffering from postpartum depression as a punchline.”
Pence's camp responded in a statement to the Washington Examiner, imploring the Biden administration to "spare America the faux outrage."
An honest question for you, @Mike_Pence, after your attempted joke this weekend. If your grandchild was born prematurely and placed on a ventilator at two months old - their tiny fingers wrapped around yours as the monitors beep in the background - where would you be? pic.twitter.com/pCWvl8pb5N
— Chasten Buttigieg (@Chasten) March 13, 2023
Meanwhile, Buttigieg’s husband Chasten Buttigieg weighed in on Twitter: "If your grandchild was born prematurely and placed on a ventilator at two months old — their tiny fingers wrapped around yours as the monitors beep in the background — where would you be?" he wrote alongside a photo of Pete cradling Gus when the newborn was hospitalized in 2021.
In an interview with The View on Thursday, Chasten said that Pence has yet to apologize to his family. As for the "faux outrage" claim, he added: "It's not ‘woke’ to say that something is homophobic or misogynistic."
Buttigieg acknowledged the matter as well, telling ABC News that Pence's sentiments were "a strange thing" because "last time I saw him, he asked me about my kids like a normal person would. I guess, you know, at a political event and white tie, it’s a little different."
But while their exchange ignited conversations about paternity leave on both sides of the political aisle, experts say it shouldn't distract from real concerns Americans have about the issue — particularly what paternity leave is, who is entitled to take it and how beneficial it is to society.
Paid family leave: What it is and who it's for
As defined by the U.S. Department of Labor, parental leave is a policy that grants an employee time off from work to "care for a newborn child, recently adopted child, foster child or a child otherwise needing parental care," without fear of losing their job.
That's promised by the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), which grants private and federal U.S. workers up to 12 weeks of job-protected unpaid leave — though an employee may elect (or an employer can require them) to "use accrued paid vacation leave, paid sick or family leave for some or all of that period," the details (and offerings) of which vary by employer.
Some companies, meanwhile, also offer some amount of paid paternity leave (and maternity leave) to their employees. The latest survey from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, accounting for all sectors in the workforce, shows that 25% of civilian workers, 24% of private industry workers and 27% of state and local government workers have some form of paid family leave through their employer.
Both mothers and fathers have the same right to take FMLA leave after welcoming a child. But remember, it's unpaid. And now employers have chosen to cut back on such private, paid benefits in recent years — from 53% in 2020 to 35% in 2022, per a report from the Society for Human Resource Management. Companies offering paternity leave, specifically, have also gone down — from 44% to 27% in that same timeframe.
Due to the lack of federal support, government-sponsored paid leave has largely been implemented state by state, with 13 states and the District of Columbia enacting inclusive paid family leave laws, with an additional four also offering the benefits that have yet to go into effect.
While FMLA offers some workers job security, many experts say it fails to protect the vast majority from basic financial security and protections.
"Financial necessity forces millions of people back to work when they have a newborn at home," Amy Beacom, founder and CEO of Center for Parental Leave Leadership, a parental-leave consulting agency that helps companies like Microsoft implement better policies, tells Yahoo Life. "One in five new moms has a perinatal mood and anxiety disorder (PMAD), as do one in 10 dads. So, you're having those people come back to work unsupported, unprepared and under-resourced, which is going to cause all sorts of problems."
What's more, "millions of families don't even qualify for FMLA" benefits, says Beacom. That's due to its strict requirements — private companies must have at least 50 employees within a 75-mile radius for them to be eligible, for example, and a worker must be employed at the company for at least 1,250 hours during their first year of employment.
As a result, employees working for small businesses, or non-federal workers who are hired on a part-time basis, fail to qualify for basic federal job protections as promised by the FMLA, putting "millions of families at a disadvantage," adds Beacom.
Leave is an ‘equalizer’
U.S. Rep. Jimmy Gomez, D-Calif., has fought to expand parental leave for most of his career; in 2015, as a member of the state legislature, he spearheaded a state law that increased the number of weekly benefits payable to those who take family leave.
“I cared about paid family leave before I ever became a dad myself,” Gomez, father to six-month-old son Hodge, tells Yahoo Life. “It’s not only for new parents to bond with a new child or adopted child, but also to take care of family members when they get sick. Parents don’t want to feel that financial stress.”
He adds: “When a family member can take time off to bond with their child, even for six weeks, health outcomes increase, postpartum depression decreases, bonding between the parents and the child increases, which has a long-term impact on their health. You also see an increase in breastfeeding rates [with maternity leave], which we know has such a tremendous health impact for the child.”
Furthermore, research suggests that paternity leave gives fathers a boost at work, benefitting businesses big and small.
“Paid leave is an investment in all of us — our collective public health, our economic security and mobility. We know from evidence in the states that paid leave has had a positive effect on bottom lines,” Dawn Huckelbridge, director of Paid Leave for All, a national campaign working to expand parental leave rights for all working people, tells Yahoo Life. “Research shows that investing in paid leave and other care policies would actually yield millions of jobs, billions in wages, and trillions in GDP.”
"Paid leave is an investment in our peace of mind, our families' wellbeing," she adds. "It means the ability to be there when your parent is dying, or your newborn needs you. It means not going broke when you face an injury or illness. It means being there for life's most important moments, being there for the people you love. When your time comes, it will feel invaluable.”
The beliefs are backed by the American Psychological Association, which has routinely expressed support for parental leave, citing numerous studies showing that parents fare better when they have paid time off to care for newborns; the American Economic Association, meanwhile, reported improvements in blood pressure and overall pain and anxiety levels from parents who take time off before returning to work.
“People think it’s going to result in massive fraud and abuse — not true,” Gomez explains, noting the common misconceptions people have about the benefit. Others include “people think you’re not committed to your job,” the belief that “work productivity decreases” when a parent returns to work, that idea that leave will “impact their wages long-term,” and, perhaps, most commonly, “that parental leave is only for the mother.”
“None of that is true,” Gomez says. “Even some Democrats, like Sen. Joe Manchin, believe that people are going to be abusing it. Not so. We need to have those conversations: What is paid family leave? What are the benefits of paid family leave? How do we craft and structure a program that helps working people so it's not just the higher income earners utilizing the program, but it's actually utilized by the people who need it the most? And then, how do we make it as universal as possible?”
That’s why, in January, Gomez launched the Congressional Dads Caucus, a group of 20 Democrats aiming to push policies like paid family and medical leave and an expanded child tax credit. The collective gained attention last month when Gomez voted against Kevin McCarthy for Speaker of the House with his son Hodge, then 4 months, strapped to his chest.
— Rep. Jimmy Gomez (@RepJimmyGomez) January 3, 2023
“It’s an equalizer,” Gomez says of parental leave. “Parental leave is not only for the mother. It's for the fathers as well. And, ultimately, they are better dads and better employees because of it. When parents actually take the time to bond with the child, and support one another, they're not taking it to slack off. It’s not like dads are taking off work to play a round of golf or go on vacation. They’re doing it to help raise the child, and to relieve some of the stress on the spouse.”
“I myself cut back [from work] for two months after my wife gave birth,” he points out. “We know from studies that if the father is there to help the mother, and also bond with the child, the likelihood of postpartum depression decreases for the mother. But, dads can suffer from postpartum depression, too [one in 10, in fact] — because you feel isolated, you're sleep-deprived, you know, all those different things come into play. And studies show that the dad is less likely to suffer from postpartum depression as well [due to parental leave].”
The Democratic 'cloakroom' is a great spot for Congress-dads like me and @RepJimmyGomez & @JoaquinCastroTX to swap parenting tips!
I wonder what age their kids will be by the time we have a Speaker of the House... pic.twitter.com/ApKB0nHAPe
— Rep. Salud Carbajal (@RepCarbajal) January 4, 2023
The majority of Americans want parental leave. Can Biden make it happen?
A December 2022 survey from insurance firm Unum found that parental leave is the top three non-insurance benefit U.S. workers want most. That's evident from another November 2022 survey by online insurance broker Breeze, which found that workers would rather have that benefit more than any other — even more than mental health coverage, vision insurance and student loan repayment assistance.
Many advocates, like Gomez, are looking at President Joe Biden, who just last week released a $6.8 trillion budget plan with a $325 billion commitment to a comprehensive, permanent paid family and medical leave program.
"It's still going to be a challenge," he says of the future. "I mean, it was just four years ago that we had the first hearing ever on paid family leave in Congress [the FAMILY Act]. But I think, slowly but surely, we're going to change the hearts and minds of members. Usually, the public gets there before the elections do."
As Beacom notes, the future of the workforce might depend on it.
"Women are a critical part of our workforce and our GDP, and men are a critical part of our care infrastructure as well," she says. "So, more and more dads, especially millennials and Gen Z employees, are saying, 'Hey, I'm not going to give up this time. This is a precious moment in my life, where I get to meet and bond and form a family.'"
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