Like many of you, I was deeply moved last week by the story of a young family in New York City whose precious baby boy died the first day outside of his mother’s care.
This story – about Karl, an infant just 117 days old; his mother, trepidatious about the end of her three-month maternity leave and the culture that forced them into this situation – has weighed on my mind as I traveled to the Philippines for the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation. But at no time was it more front-of-mind than during a dinner with the Prime Minister and business leaders from Papua New Guinea.
Why Papua New Guinea? The US and PNG are the only two countries in the world without policies guaranteeing paid leave for new mothers who have given birth to a child. So I asked them about looking into paid leave policies, given this dubious distinction we share.
While the push for paid parental leave – and maternity leave especially – has been front and center here in the United States all year, and many companies have been making big moves toward better supports for new parents, the concept of mandatory policies guaranteeing leave for new moms apparently gets less attention in Papua New Guinea.
Over dinner, PNG government and business leaders shared they were not as aware of the importance of policies mandating paid leave for new moms. But, they said, they’d be open to it … and just imagine the pressure that would put on the United States.
That’s pressure we should be feeling now; pressure we should have been feeling for many years. We envision ourselves a global leader, and yet we’re one of two nations without policies mandating paid leave for new moms. This, to us, should be inexcusable.
The story of baby Karl is tragic, and his mother, Amber Scorah, bravely underscores the need for cultural changes. For The New York Times she wrote:
I wasn’t just up against the end of my parental leave. I was up against an entire culture that places very little value on caring for infants and small children. Parental leave reduces infant death, gives us healthier, more well-adjusted adults and helps women stay in the workforce. If we truly valued the 47 percent of the work force who are women, and the value of our families, things would look different. Mothers could go back to work after taking time off to recover physically from birth and bond with their young children. Health care could be available to bridge that return to work so that our children could get their wellness checkups and vaccinations.
One mom asking why she has to leave her child so soon is too many, and yet we force millions to make this choice. Only 12 percent of American employees have access to paid parental leave through their employers, according to Department of Labor estimates. Almost one in four employed mothers return to work within two weeks of giving birth.
We can agree paid leave for American moms is long overdue. But empty criticisms of our out-of-date policies will ring hollow until we take ownership of the fact there is something each of us can be doing to affect the change we want.
First, companies can step up to put proper leave in place – for all parents, including new dads, adoptive parents and non-primary caregivers. We’ve seen many make strides this year, with Spotify, Microsoft and Amazon being a few recent examples of organizations offering innovative paid parental leave programs. Amazon’s policy includes a provision that allows employees to share all or a portion of their paid parental leave with a spouse who works outside the company and does not have access to paid leave through their employer.
Second, we need to support and enact policy changes, such as the FAMILY Act and Healthy Families Act, which would provide paid family and medical leave and social infrastructure to support working families and mobile employment. Funded through employer and employee contributions equal to two cents for every $10 dollar earned, instituting the self-sufficient independent trust proposed under the FAMILY Act would cost less than a cup of coffee a week. What would the real cost be like for employers? A decade after paid leave was instituted in California, 91 percent of business owners reported the policy had a positive or no negative impact on their performance and profitability.
Third is the cultural shift we’ll need to counteract the sense of pressure to return to work prematurely and erase feelings of a lack of choice that too many new mothers feel. This shift needs to be more than lip service. A recent report from Lean In and McKinsey found 90 percent of men and women report stopping work for six months to start a family would have a negative impact on their career. We need to do a better job valuing our caregivers and the critical role of care in our economic security.
And as we take these steps, we must also have a broader conversation about what really is best for our children, our seniors and all of our working families. There have to be creative, flexible ideas that will enable our modern families to thrive in our changing world of work.
Knowing everything that we do about the costs to employers versus benefits to families, there is no more room for excuses. We cannot wait for Papua New Guinea to pass us by, and leave us as the only nation not to mandate paid leave for new moms.
It’s time to take action. It’s time to #LeadOnLeave. For Karl, for his family, and for all of us.
- 7 Companies with Innovative Parental Leave Policies
- 5 Things You Need to Know About the Family Act
- Does It Pay to Offer Paid Leave
- How Work-Life Benefits Improve Employee Performance
- 9 Ways Child Care Costs Affect Working Parents' Careers
Sheila Lirio Marcelo is the founder, chairwoman and CEO of Care.com.