Our VoiceNews & Politics

Paid Maternity Leave is Long Overdue for Women’s Health

Jessica Acee • Jun 22, 2009

Last week the House voted 258-154 to give federal employees four weeks of paid leave after the birth or adoption of a child. Currently, federal employees who have worked at least one year are entitled to 12 weeks of unpaid leave after the arrival of a child, but employers in the private sector don’t have to offer any paid maternity leave.

While the Senate still has to tackle their own version of the bill, paid maternity leave and the specter of Obama’s health care reform are promising first steps towards assuring that disparities in health care will no longer be tolerated.

“As the nation’s largest employer with 1.8 million employees, this sends a strong message loud and clear that healthy and happy families are central to the well-being of this country,” said Rep. Carolyn Maloney, D-N.Y., co-author of the bill. “It ensures no parent ever has to make the terrible decision between getting a paycheck and taking care of a newborn child.”

With the rise in women’s paid employment—women are now just less than half of all paid workers, whereas in 1960 they were only one-third—has been a corresponding rise in women-headed households. In 1960, 18% of households were headed by a woman who was divorced, widowed or had never married; by 2007 women-headed households had risen to 30% of all households.

Put another way, for a woman who is sole provider for her family, spending time with her newborn means no income to feed, clothe, and shelter her family. Even within married-couple households, women’s earnings comprise an ever-larger share of total income: In 1970, women contributed 27% of household earnings, but by 2006 the percentage had risen to 37%.

Republicans said federal benefits shouldn’t be increased during a time when families are struggling with less. “There is no way Congress can justify granting a costly benefit to government workers at the expense of a nation that is struggling to survive the effects of a deep recession,” said Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., ranking member of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee. This makes absolutely no sense to me. It seems now would be precisely the time to invest in healthy women, and in turn, healthy families.

A new study from UC Berkeley suggests that providing mothers with pay and job security both before and after childbirth brings economic benefits for everyone in the form of lower health care costs passed down to taxpayers. Not to mention that babies who have constant contact with their mothers the first few months of life are healthier, have higher self esteem, and improved cognitive development. ”Maternity leave makes good economic sense,” says Sylvia Guendelman, the public health professor who led the study.

The United States is far behind the times as one of only five countries that still does not guarantee paid maternity leave. Whatever reforms are made with regard to paid leave, and the larger issue of health care coverage, will have a profound impact on women, who spend more on medical care, and are gatekeepers of their families health. We must demand a health policy that reflects women equally.

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