The country's 2.1 million government employees will gain 12 weeks of paid parental leave as part of a defense bill that President Donald Trump signed into law on Friday. But it still leaves about 80% of U.S. workers in the private sector with no access to paid family leave.
The U.S. is one of a handful of countries that lacks a federal policy, at least for new mothers, leaving employers to decide whether to offer it. Disproportionately, paid leave has gone to higher-paid white collar workers.
Just 9% of wage earners in the bottom 25% have access to paid family leave, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. That compares to 30% of wage earners in the top 25%.
Challenges of low-wage workers
Low-wage earners without paid leave can struggle after the birth of a child, especially if there are complications. Take Nancy Glynn, a waitress in Manchester, New Hampshire who could not afford a funeral for her newborn son who died after a premature birth.
She was already taking time off from her job to recover from a C-section. Adding to her difficulties, her husband had an unplanned surgery just two days after the baby died.
Sawyer was cremated, his remains put into an urn the funeral home provided for free. The couple, who also had a 3-year-old son, struggled to pay the bills and their gas was cut off. A cousin set up a Go Fund Me campaign to help them pay the rent.
Glynn was back at work after just a few weeks, smiling for customers. She sometimes hid in the restaurant office to cry.
"Just seeing a family come in was triggering. Seeing a kid come in," said Glynn, who now works for several non-profits, including MomsRising, a group that advocates for paid parental leave and other policies. "But we had to make the money back."
Glynn is on the losing side of a growing movement to provide U.S. workers with paid parental leave.
Generous benefits at big companies
The same year Sawyer died — 2015 — Netflix granted new parents a year of paid time off. Most other major tech companies have similar generous policies, as do big banks and major consulting firms.
Meanwhile, millions of construction workers, retail workers, public school teachers, warehouse and transportation workers and restaurant employees have to forego paychecks to take time to care for a new child.
As a waitress, Glynn belonged to the group least likely to have paid parental leave: part-time workers.
Women are historically more likely to work part-time than men, often because of caregiving responsibilities, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. That usually means foregoing paid time off after giving birth —a trade-off that can be painful.
After she had her daughter, Daniella Knight took a part-time job for a website dedicated to helping parents train their babies to sleep through the night. It seemed perfect for the Virginia mom, a recent college graduate who could not afford childcare on top of payments on $80,000 in student loans that she and her husband owed.
But when Knight became pregnant with her second child, the company did not offer any paid leave, and her family could not afford to lose her income. She was back at work after using up two weeks of vacation, racing to put together sleep plans for her clients every minute her own newborn was sleeping.
Three years later, Knight got pregnant again, a surprise. She considered an abortion rather than going through the same ordeal again.
"I did not think we could survive it. It's probably one of those things that will haunt me for the rest of my life, but my husband and I actually went to an abortion clinic," said Knight, who ultimately had the baby and now works as real estate agent.
Support for extending paid leave to part-time workers is slowly gaining traction in recognition that in many low-wage earners rely on multiple jobs to make ends meet, said Pronita Gupta, director of job quality at the Center for Law and Social Policy, an anti-poverty organization.
Target made waves in June when the retailer included part-time employees in an expanded paid family leave policy. Part-time employees are also covered to varying degrees under paid family leave laws that eight states, plus Washington, D.C., have or will soon implement.
In Congress, there is growing bipartisan support for a federal paid family leave policy for all workers, but progress has stalled over sharp differences over how to pay for it.
Many companies that rely on low-wage workers, small businesses and non-profits are unlikely to take on the cost of family leave without a government policy to help pay for it, said Harry Holzer, a professor of public policy at Georgetown University.
Colin Ma, founder of a digital marketing firm, said he has been unable to give his 10 employees paid parental leave for logistical and financial reasons.
Now it's affecting Ma personally: He is expecting a baby in May but won't take any time off beyond vacation out of fairness to his employees. That has upset his girlfriend, who is worried about juggling her own career in advertising while childcare falls largely on her shoulders.
"She wants more help, and I get it from her perspective because she is worried that maybe it's going to hurt her long-term career prospects," Ma said.
Gaps in coverage
Even under the policy passed by Congress for federal workers, there are still gaps in coverage. For instance, federal workers do not get paid leave for their own serious illness or to care for a sick relative. More than 70% of the time, those are the reasons workers take time off under the 1993 Family and Medical Leave Act, which only guarantees unpaid leave.
That coverage would have made a big difference for Regan Lamphier, a New Hampshire postal worker whose son died suddenly in 2014 shortly after his eighth birthday. Relatives had to launch a Go Fund me campaign so that Lamphier and her husband, also a postal worker, could take a few weeks off to grieve.
Lamphier had struggled with no paid family leave since Ethan was born with severe disabilities. When he was 3, Ethan suffered a stroke that sent him to the hospital in Boston and rehab for six weeks. Lamphier spent her days looking after her son and nights sorting out U.S. mail, traveling between two states every day. She and her husband separated for six months under the strain.
"There just wasn't enough of me to go around," said Lamphier, who also advocates for MomsRising. "I don't know how I survived, but I didn't have a choice."
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