A right every American worker should have

Story highlights

  • Kristin Rowe-Finkbeiner: Paid family leave crucial for women's equality
  • Benefits of paid family leave are real and palpable, she says

Kristin Rowe-Finkbeiner is executive director and co-founder of MomsRising.org. The views expressed are her own.

(CNN)Despite bipartisan support and momentum for paid family leave, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo recently put the brakes on leave legislation in the state, saying New York lacked the "appetite" to pass it because other legislation to advance women's equality is more important.

He couldn't be more wrong.
In fact, not only is the appetite for this policy more than there, but such a move is also critically important if we want to help boost the prospects for women, families -- and the U.S. economy as a whole.
    The reality is that our labor force has changed -- for the first time in history, women are half of the labor force, and moms are the primary breadwinners in 40% of families. Yet our public policies haven't caught up to our modern-day work force even though the majority of women in our nation -- a full 81% -- become moms at some point in their lives. Further, being a mom is now a greater predictor of wage and hiring discrimination than gender, research shows.
    Paid family leave is a crucial part of the agenda for women's equality, and pitting paid family leave against an agenda for women's equality, as Governor Cuomo effectively did, is wrong and short-sighted. In fact, paid family leave must be addressed to advance equality; as with wage and hiring discrimination, lack of paid leave is a major contributor to women's lower pay and to gender inequality.
    That's just one reason that 177 nations guarantee paid family leave for new moms (The United States is the only developed country that does not).
    But there are plenty more reasons to make this change aside from the fact that virtually every other country has done so.
    Access to paid family leave after the birth of a child helps women and families avoid poverty and provides significant health benefits, including lower infant mortality, strengthened parental bonding, and improved brain and social development. Also, women who take maternity leave breastfeed for longer, which has a positive effect on their overall health and the overall long-term health of their babies. These improved outcomes in turn lead to reduced costs to our health care system and lower long-term reliance on government programs.
    And access to paid leave also benefits dads: Studies show that fathers who are able to take paid leave to care for their children are more involved in their kids' lives nine months after they are born, and their families are less likely to need public assistance. With more and more moms in the work force and more households in which both parents work outside the home for pay, paid family leave should be a basic workplace protection.
    But this isn't just about women's equality, children's health and well-being, and family economic security. As if all those benefits weren't enough, paid leave policies aren't just good for families -- they also benefit employers. Fortunately, several states have stepped up to move this policy forward, with excellent outcomes. A 2011 study of the California Paid Leave program found most employers reported that providing paid family leave had a positive effect on productivity, profitability and performance, turnover, and employee morale. Also, it found that moms with access to paid family leave were more likely to be in the labor force one year after having a child and significantly less likely to rely on government programs, saving taxpayer dollars.
    Unsurprisingly, the economy as a whole also benefits when businesses are doing better and workers have access to paid leave. When moms and dads have access to paid family leave, they are more likely to stay in their jobs (continuing to pay taxes) and get the wage increases that go with longer employment histories.
    The benefits of paid family leave are real and palpable. Despite that, only 13% of U.S. workers have access to paid family leave even though more than half of all new mothers work outside the home for pay. As a result, many take unpaid leave, quit, or even lose their jobs when they face a major health issue or have a baby. Indeed, having a baby is the cause of one-quarter of "poverty spells" in our nation. No family should face the prospect of poverty because of the birth of a child.
    The New York governor's reticence notwithstanding, other lawmakers and an overwhelming number of voters strongly support paid family leave policies. California, New Jersey, and Rhode Island all have paid family leave insurance laws, while 81% of voters, including 94% of Democrats, 80% of independents and 65% of Republicans agree that these kinds of policies are "good for our nation," according to one recent poll.
    It's clear that paid family leave laws are win-win-win, and New York should proceed with such a law. But ultimately, we need these policies across the country. Access to paid family leave shouldn't be dependent on geography or type of job. Every worker in the United States should be able to take time off to care for a new child or to address major health issues -- theirs or their loved ones' -- without facing the possibility of losing pay or even a job. Paid family leave should be the law of the land.
    The Family and Medical Insurance Leave Act (FAMILY Act), introduced last week by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-New York, and Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-Connecticut, would create a national insurance program that would allow eligible workers to take up to 12 weeks of paid leave and help millions of moms and families nationwide. It would help advance women's equality, improve families' health, and boost our businesses and our economy. In short, it would help bring our nation's workplace policies into line with the reality of the modern work force, at last.