Suriname, Papua New Guinea, and the United States. What do these countries have in common? These are the only countries in the entire world that do not guaranteed paid leave for new parents. Instead, America has a uniquely burdensome system that forces new parents to exhaust their entire paid time off allowance on leave to care for their newly born or adopted children.
The City of Cleveland must – at the very least – commit to removing our corner of the country off this embarrassing list. While the Biden Administration might someday pass some minimum level of paid family leave, we cannot assume that federal action will provide employees with financial security.
Being a City employee should not be something one has to balance against having a family. The birth of a child is a pivotal moment in a family. It is a joyful experience as new relationships are formed. It is an extremely difficult physical experience for the mother. It is also the beginning of the child’s cognitive development – which many studies show can be positively or negatively impacted by the initial bonding period between parent and child.
Adoption has its own joys and family stresses – unique to the age and situation of the child – that require the parental focus and attention.
Regardless of how a family grows, it is a stressful undertaking and a challenging transition for a household.
Why Paid Parental Leave?
To make it easier for parents to fully engage with their new responsibilities, paid parental leave has is almost universally mandated outside of America. The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) tracks paid parental leave worldwide and shows showing more gains for families in the rest of the world.
For example, in Africa, more than 30 countries mandate 12 weeks or more at 100% of pay for new mothers. In the rest of the Americas, the least generous level is 12 weeks at half pay, while most countries offer 12 weeks or more at full pay. Across Europe, in addition to at least four months of fully paid maternity leave, most countries offer six months of additional paid family leave to one or both parents, some offer paid prenatal leave, and some offer as much as 3 years of additional paid leave.
But in the United States, government policy – or lack thereof – adds financial stress onto birth and/or adoption. The US Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA) does not provide or require paid parental leave. Instead, parents are asked to use saved sick and vacation leave, forgo their pay entirely, or neglect health and developmental care for themselves and their child.
In fact, the situation is most difficult for the demographic that is most likely to have children – younger, new employees who traditionally earn the lowest pay, have the least amount of savings, the most debt – and who will have had the least ability to save up sick leave or vacation.
For families who cannot financially afford to go without wages for any amount of time, there is simply no choice. Mothers return to work too early to allow full recovery time post-pregnancy, and parents cannot be fully present during their child’s first months. If leave was used for recovery and bonding time, the routine and even urgent appointments might have to be skipped for both parent and child. This is unacceptable. Even when leave is available, a relatively new worker would have to forego sick or vacation days for years to come to compensate for that leave.
In a city with such poor and racially disproportionate outcomes in infant and maternal mortality, household incomes, and career advancement – and one with a population that continues to both shrink and age – offering good family leave is both a matter of justice and self-interest.
Offering Paid Paternal Leave to City Employees
Currently, the City of Cleveland offers no more than the bare minimum required by FMLA. It would take a new employee 2.5 years of employment at the City without taking a single day off to save up for the 12 weeks that FMLA purportedly offers. Then, they must begin saving again if they want to have another child 3 years later – leaving nothing left for routine doctor appointments and illnesses, much less to deal with any medical complications.
In the past 5 years, Columbus and Cincinnati have both begun offering 4 to 6 weeks of partially paid leave, and Cuyahoga County has offered two weeks of fully paid leave. Of course, those policies still rank those jurisdictions among the worst in the world. The recently adopted parental leave policy for federal employees is a better target: 12 weeks of fully paid leave for both parents – with no impact on the employee’s accrued leave.
The question before the City is what level of leave it can afford. We should review our finances and recent use of FMLA for births and adoptions and implement the largest period of fully paid leave it can reasonably offer.
We should avoid the temptation to stretch six weeks of full pay into 12 weeks of half pay, just to claim the number. Cost-sharing arrangements between the employer and employee, advance-leave programs, and other complex schemes should also be avoided.
These restrictions create an administrative burden for the City, make the benefits more difficult to use and will send a message to employees that we are more concerned about cheating or penny-pinching than making it easier to have or adopt a child while being an employee. However, if the benefit is clear and fair, it will instead improve morale and retention among our employees.
The policy could be implemented as Mayor Jackson did with a citywide minimum wage – first to non-union employees, and then negotiated into union contracts as they next come up for revision.
Beyond the basic paid leave, the City should engage in a full review of other aspects of family leave – for example, how it is available to part-time employees, and how any remaining unpaid period affects eligibility for medical and retirement benefits.
The goal should be that the City place no undue burden on employees with a new child. This is a minimum benefit that all Americans deserve. It should not be considered a handout or a special incentive to attract city employees.
I firmly believe that being a City employee should not be something one has to balance against having a family.