Republicans in Congress didn’t stand up in support of President Obama’s call for nationwide paid family leave during the State of the Union Address last week. So, it might be surprising to hear that Republican senators are actually quite generous with maternity and paternity leaves when it comes to their own staffs. Last week, journalist Jennifer Senior wrote to all 100 Senate offices to ask about their family-leave policies for a piece for The New York Times. “Virtually all of the respondents — 15 Democrats, two independents, and nine Republicans — said they provided paid leave of some kind,” Senior wrote. This is intriguing because Republicans have historically opposed any kind of paid-parental-leave law. Recent attempts at legislation have gone nowhere, and Obama’s impassioned speech doesn’t seem to have changed anything. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) told reporters last week, “another tax increase obviously is not what we had in mind.”
The U.S. is one of only three countries in the world not to guarantee paid maternity leave of some kind (for perspective, the other two are Oman and Papua New Guinea). The only federal parental-leave law currently in place is 1993’s Family and Medical Leave Act, which ensures 12 weeks of unpaid time off, only for full-time workers at companies with at least 50 employees — about 60 percent of the American workforce. Translation: If you work full-time for such a company, when you have a baby, you can take off time with no pay and still come back to your job. That bill passed in 1993 with 134 House Republicans voting against it, including current Speaker of the House John Boehner, who noted that the bill would “be the demise” of some American businesses. But here’s the thing: Business doesn’t suffer because of paid-leave laws. In California, one of only three states with paid-family-leave laws, 91 percent of businesses reported that the law either boosted or had no impact on their profitability. And, women there were more likely to stay in the workforce and report increased wages after having a baby than those in states with no such law. “Paid parental leave encourages loyalty and productivity, and reduces turnover in a workforce,” says Tracy Sturdivant, co-executive director of Make it Work, a nonpartisan campaign working to advance economic security. “That’s why successful businesses like Google offer generous paid leave for mothers and fathers. These policies are good for loyalty, morale, and for a business’s bottom line.”
With the oldest members of the millennial generation turning 35 this year, these policies are increasingly important to us. As millennial women, we should be set up for success. We’re earning more college degrees than men, have been encouraged to push for executive and leadership positions at work (thanks, Sheryl Sandberg!), and are even closing the wage gap. But, all that progress is tenuous when just 12 percent of Americans working in the private sector have access to paid family leave. According to a 2013 Pew research poll, 63 percent of millennial women believe that having a child will make it harder to advance in their career. Sadly, they’re right. For each year that motherhood is delayed, career earnings for women increase by 9 percent. It’s no wonder women are waiting longer than ever to have their first child, and even dropping out of the workforce entirely. And, what’s bad for women is bad for the country. “Failing to keep up with other nations’ paid-leave policies is associated with a decrease in the labor force participation of women, which hurts our country’s economic competitiveness as a whole,”* says Alexandra Mitukiewicz, research associate at the Washington Center for Equitable Growth. A poll released last week found that 81 percent of Americans overall believe that equal pay, paid family leave, and affordable and accessible child care are “good for the nation,” including 65 percent of voters who identify as Republicans. But, will anything happen?
In the Senate, Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) has announced her intention to reintroduce the Family Act, which would enact paid family leave for all American workers, funded by employer and employee contributions — similar to Social Security. We’ll get a sneak peek at how the new Congress will treat the issue when the House takes up the Federal Employees Paid Parental Leave Act, introduced by a group of House Democrats this week, which would provide six weeks of paid parental leave for all federal employees. Those Republican senators offering their staffs paid leave would seem to see the benefit of the practice. “They understand that providing paid leave helps them attract and retain talented employees, increases productivity, and reduces employee absenteeism and turnover,” says Liz Morris, deputy director of Center for WorkLife Law at University of California. The question that remains is whether those lawmakers will realize that what’s good for their staffs is also good for the rest of the country.
* Editor's Note: After this story was published, Alexandra Mitukiewicz reached out to our writer to say that she had misspoken, and that her words didn't accurately describe the findings of the study. We've accommodated her request and changed the quote, replacing "causing" with "associated with."