The U.S. is the only developed country without mandated paid parental leave. How did we get here?

I was working for a large tech company in Germany when I had my first child.

When I summoned up the nerve to tell my boss, the response was simple and direct: “Congratulations! Now let’s discuss your leave plan.”

I was entitled to a full year of government-stipend paid leave. Not only that, I also was entitled to three years of job protection in the event I needed — or chose — to take a longer, unpaid time to shepherd our new family member into the world.

So, imagine my surprise when, working for the very same company back in the United States a few years later, I got a very different reaction to my second pregnancy. My friends and colleagues advised me to hide my baby bump and delay telling my manager as long as possible to avoid career repercussions. And jarringly, the human resources rep offered me mental health services. My maternity leave consisted of a confusingly cobbled-together combination of vacation time, short-term disability coverage, Family Medical Leave Act leave — and I was one of the fortunate ones who had access to company provided paid leave.

Those two dramatically different experiences led to a lot of questions about why parental leave is viewed and treated so differently in the U.S. than the rest of the world. And let’s be clear: It’s pretty much just us. We’re the only developed country without government-mandated paid parental leave, and one of only a handful of nations worldwide that don’t provide it (and I’ll bet you can’t even point to the others —The Marshall Islands and Papua New Guinea — on a map).

Let’s also be clear that this disparity matters not only to workers but to employers’ bottom line. Losing skilled workers because leave isn’t available costs employers big-time: The Society for Human Resource Management estimates every time a company loses an employee, it costs the equivalent of six to nine months’ salary to replace and retrain a replacement — and two or three times more than that for highly-skilled employees.

paid leave access by occupation

Unpaid leave also has a significant economic impact on the workforce. A Pew Research study found more than a third of those who took unpaid or partially paid leave took on debt, a third put off paying bills, and nearly one in five went on public assistance.

To try to understand why we’re in this situation, let’s take a look back at the history of women in the workplace.

Rosie the Riveter begins the evolution

Early in the 20th century, women employed outside the home were most often treated as temporary workers — in the workplace only until they got married and started raising children. When World War II began, droves of women entered the workforce to not only support the war effort, but to supplement their husbands’ salaries who were serving in the military. Rosie the Riveter became a symbol of American feminism and women’s economic power.

As the war ended, many women remained in the workforce and attitudes slowly began to shift. Employers and lawmakers were forced to address the issue of pregnancy on the job. The feminist movement of the 1960s drew even more attention to this issue, and in 1972, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission drafted guidelines that essentially labeled pregnancy as a disability. The Pregnancy Discrimination Act of 1978 amended the Civil Rights Act to prohibit discrimination on the basis of pregnancy, childbirth or related medical conditions. But none of this legislation provided time off — paid or unpaid — to care for a child.

Federal leave laws take baby steps forward

The earliest version of the FMLA, the Family Employment Security Act, was developed in 1984. Legislators spent the next nine years debating leave and job protection until the FMLA was finally signed into law under the Clinton administration in 1993. There was widespread hope the law would steadily expand to protect more workers and eventually include wage replacement.

Twenty-six years later, that still hasn’t happened.

There has been some progress: Amendments were added in 2008 to expand leave coverage for workers with a family member in the military, and the Department of Labor revised the FMLA’s definition of “spouse” in 2015 to ensure eligible workers in a legal same-sex marriage could take leave to care for a spouse or family member, regardless of their state of residence.

Still, the quarter century since the passage of the FMLA have been disappointing at a federal level. Where we do see a stronger glimmer of light is at the state level. Some states have begun passing their own legislation around paid family leave. However, this has resulted in a more fractured, scaffolding-like approach. Today, some states guarantee no more coverage than the FMLA, while others have expanded unpaid leave to a greater number of workers.

To be continued …

Is the pace of change (finally) picking up for paid family leave in this country? In my next column, we’ll look at states and municipalities that are taking more than baby steps toward this essential benefit for America’s workers.

This is the first in a six-part series on paid parental leave for America’s workers: how it started and where it’s going, who’s doing it well, why it’s such a challenge for employers and employees, and why it’s essential to the long-term economic growth of our country.

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