What working moms really need for Mother's Day this year

When Mother's Day became a national holiday in the U.S. more than a century ago, women were a relative rarity in the workforce. Today's mom, by contrast, is largely a working mom. 

In half of American households, women are either the primary breadwinner or contribute more than 40 percent of the income. For most families, the added income from women going to work is the only thing that's kept family income steady, as individual worker wages have stagnated for the better part of four decades. 

So while moms nationwide might appreciate the usual bouquet of flowers or other gift to recognize their efforts, for this Mother's Day we look at public policies that could lift their spirits -- and economic security. 

Raise the minimum wage

More women than men work in lower-wage jobs -- think health care, retail and administrative work. More than half -- 56 percent -- of minimum-wage workers are women. The sex differences are even starker among tipped workers, two-thirds of whom are women (and many of whom, according to a federal law last updated in 1991, have a baseline pay of only $2.13 an hour.)

But the effect of raising the minimum wage goes beyond just low-paid workers. Raising the wage floor also tends to lift the wages of higher-paid workers because their employers must compete with other companies offering higher pay. 

To be sure, there is a tradeoff. Research shows that raising the minimum wage can suppress job growth, since making something more expensive (in this case, hiring) leads to people doing less of it. When the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office estimated the effects of increasing the federal minimum wage to $10.10 a few years ago, it found that 16.5 million workers would see higher earnings, while about half a million who otherwise would have had jobs wouldn't get work. 

Many states and localities have raised regional minimum wages since that study, and those increases haven't had a discernible effect on employment.

Boost parental leave

The U.S. is unique among developed countries in not requiring businesses to provide any maternity or paternity leave for workers, paid or otherwise. (The Family and Medical Leave Act requires some businesses to provide unpaid leave, but it leaves out about 40 percent of workers.)

The situation creates what is an untenable choice for millions of working moms, who effectively must choose between being with their children or keeping their job, which they need to help support the household. And a lack of paid leave, combined with increasingly expensive child care, forces many women to stop working. 

"Women's participation [in the labor force] would be 6 percent higher if we had the same policies as other OECD countries," Betsey Stevenson, a professor of economics and public policy at the University of Michigan, told CBS MoneyWatch earlier this year, alluding to the 35 wealthier nations that make up the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. 

Though lower-wage moms (and dads) are disproportionately affected by the absence of paid-parental leave in the U.S., it hurts higher-income women (and dads), too. According to research from former President Obama's Council of Economic Advisers, most women who don't take leave report having "too much work."

Offering paid family leave nationwide would remove the stigma for many workers. And research shows it's good business. Paid leave "increases the likelihood that workers will return to work after childbirth, improves employee morale, has no or positive effects on workplace productivity, reduces costs to employers through improved employee retention, and improves family incomes," found one study from the Institute for Women's Policy Research.

Make schedules boring

Businesses are increasingly setting workers' schedules using software that tracks the flow of customers, diners or patients. While such technology may help companies cut their labor costs, the advent of "on-call scheduling" often makes it hard for employees to predict their work hours. That's a particular problem for workers with family obligations, leaving parents scrambling to arrange child care to pick up a shift they learned about only days, or sometimes hours, in advance. 

"Every corporate retailer uses some sort of workforce management technology to schedule their workforce," said Carrie Gleason, director of the Fair Workweek Initiative at the Center for Popular Democracy, a group that advocates for workers, including laws that would require businesses to post schedules at least two weeks in advance and allow workers more input into their hours.

"As a result, working families are scrambling for last-minute childcare, and can't set up regular routines because they're working different shifts from one week to the next." Workers who turn down last-minute shifts can often find themselves penalized or find their overall hours cut, Gleason noted, making it harder for them to advance.

Making health care cheaper

It's hard to point to workers -- male or female -- who wouldn't gain from cheaper and more accessible health care. But women in particular would benefit, because they're disproportionately hurt by the current system.

New research from JPMorgan Chase (JPM) shows that health catastrophes, defined as something that requires an "extraordinary medical payment," affect 1 in 6 families in the U.S. But the effect of those payments hurts women more than men. "Women were in a weaker financial position than men to withstand an extraordinary medical payment," the banking giant found. One year after the medical payment, women had nearly 10 percent more debt than men.

With universal health care -- the system of choice for most developed nations -- seemingly off the table it the U.S., other policies could partly address the disproportionate impact of medical emergencies on women by tackling health issues that specifically hurt women. That could include reducing the cost of pregnancy, allowing access to family planning and providing social services for assault victims, to name just three.