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Congress Flirts with Mandating Paid Maternity Leave, Other Women’s Benefits

One senator, though, argues that mandating instead of empowering would kill jobs.

by
Rodrigo Sermeño

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May 30, 2014 - 12:12 am

WASHINGTON – Paid maternity leave and sick days, a higher minimum wage, and pay equity legislation could address a range of women’s economic issues, panelists told a Senate committee during a hearing last week.

The Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee held its second hearing in a month last week to discuss legislative proposals to help women succeed in the workplace.

Committee Chairman Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) noted in his opening remarks that the United States is the only industrialized nation without a federal law providing workers access to paid maternity leave. He said the U.S. must strive to provide paid maternity leave and other workplace benefits that the Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993 does not mandate.

“We have to make accommodations to make this possible. …It doesn’t cost a lot of money and makes it possible for women to both be caregivers and be allowed to work,” Harkin said.

Harkin said he became aware of the need for better workplace policies for women when his wife, Ruth, had a baby shortly after being elected county attorney of Story County, Iowa.

“She cleaned out a broom closet in her office to make a place for a crib or bassinet, and she took [the baby] to work every day and nursed,” Harkin said. “That raised a lot of eyebrows in the courthouse in Iowa, someone bringing their baby to work and nursing. She could do that because she was an elected official, but what if she worked somewhere else?”

A recent United Nations study reported the United States is the only Western country – and one of only three in the world – that does not provide some kind of monetary payment to new mothers who have taken maternity leave from their jobs.

Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Texas) said creating more jobs and providing more flexibility for female workers would more effectively empower women than a government mandate.

“Sometimes the debate here in this committee is between what I call the ‘mandaters,’ or those who see a need and say, ‘We can tell you what to do,’ and the ‘empowerers’ – those who see a need and say, ‘We will empower you to do those things,’” Alexander said. “Almost every time we impose new mandates, we destroy jobs.”

Alexander criticized calls to increase the federal minimum wage, saying creating more jobs would have a greater impact on the economic security of women.

“The Congressional Budget Office said the proposal to raise the minimum wage would destroy 500,000 jobs,” he said. “Why would we want to pass something that would destroy jobs?”

Connecticut AFL-CIO Executive Secretary-Treasurer Lori Pelletier told the committee that collective bargaining gives women workers more economic security by increasing their chances of having access to workplace benefits, such as employer-provided health insurance, paid family leave, and short-term disability benefits.

“Unions today continue to be critical to the economic security of working women and their families, who still face an uphill battle in the workplace,” Pelletier said.

Neera Tanden, president of the Center for American Progress, said more than 6 in 10 women are the primary or co-breadwinners for their families. Yet, on average, women continue to earn less than their male counterparts do. Tanden said women still make 77 cents for every dollar earned by a man. The disparity for minority women is even greater.

“If we want real economic progress, we need policies that respond to the everyday challenges facing the diverse group of women who are part of today’s economy, particularly those women who too often get ignored,” Tanden said.

Tanden noted that California’s paid leave model could serve as an example of a domestic program that effectively tackles the issue.

“The vast majority of businesses report that this [program] is a positive or neutral [impact] on their bottom line. It increases productivity, it helps keep workers, it helps retain women workers, which often have to come out of the workforce and then come in at a lower salary than they otherwise would,” she said.

Ellen Bravo, executive director of Family Values @ Work, said the lack of policies providing paid sick days, family and medical leave insurance for millions of workers hinders the U.S. economy.

“Women and families in this country will not have real economic security until their earnings and their jobs are protected when they or a family member needs care,” Bravo said.

Bravo praised the FMLA for being “a great first step for families,” but, she added, “as our economy and our families have changed, so too must our laws.”

The FMLA provides eligible employees up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave to tend to medical needs and emergencies.

According to the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, nearly 40 percent of the workforce does not earn paid sick days.

She urged Congress to expand the FMLA to cover those currently excluded.

“We have a growing body of evidence that shows these policies are good for women’s economic security, for families, and for businesses’ bottom lines. We should not have the situation where having economic security is at odds with the emotions and physical health of our loved ones and yet that’s where we are,” Bravo said.

While women have made gains into typically male-dominated professions, Tanden said these gains have been unequal. About 44 percent of women still work in only 20 types of low-paying jobs, such as nurses, teachers, and salespeople. Women in these types of jobs typically lack access to benefits that help balance work and family life.

Armanda Legros, a single mother who lives in Queens, New York, asked the committee to pass legislation to help women who, like her, are the sole breadwinners in the family.

Legros lost her job at an armored truck company when she was six and a half months pregnant with her second son in 2012. After pulling a muscle in her stomach one day at work, she took a week off to recover. When she returned to work with a doctor’s note advising her to avoid heavy lifting for the remainder of the pregnancy, her manager sent her home indefinitely with no pay.

“If you truly value families, and children, then you have to make sure that the women who bear those children and raise them can earn the fair and equal wages we need to support them,” she said.

Rodrigo is a freelance writer living in Washington, D.C.
All Comments   (19)
All Comments   (19)
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We have paid maternity leave in Israel, but it's paid by social security, not by the employer. Which is one reason so little is left for retirees. And yes, they are shocked that the US doesn't.

This will be another nail in the coffin of the US. It's bad enough it has the West's highest Corporate Income Tax. And watch people decline to hire women that they will suspect will get pregnant.
8 weeks ago
8 weeks ago Link To Comment
Oh, yes, and every mother takes the three months. Why shouldn't she? She gets her salary.
8 weeks ago
8 weeks ago Link To Comment
If I was a business owner and you told me I had to pay workers who weren't working I simply wouldn't hire them. Thank you government for helping.
8 weeks ago
8 weeks ago Link To Comment
"One senator, though, argues that mandating instead of empowering would kill jobs."
Which is why we need more libertarian-minded legislators.
8 weeks ago
8 weeks ago Link To Comment
The federal government has no business mandating employment benefits. They are simply attempting to buy votes with taxpayer money.
8 weeks ago
8 weeks ago Link To Comment
sorry, but here is where the choice argument is going to boomerang. Having children is a life choice; it's not up to the rest of us to subsidize it. I love children; have four of them, all grown up and independent. But I didn't ask my fellow citizens to pay their mother. The law already required her employer to keep her job and it was up to us to determine if and when she would return to work.

My word, how has the republic survived without masterminds like Harkin seeming to micromanage every step of our existence.
8 weeks ago
8 weeks ago Link To Comment
Much of the fuss over maternal leave misses a critical point. A few weeks or even a few months with a new baby or making it a bit easy to take leave for a sick child is a bandaid rather than a cure. Maternal leave often ends just as that baby becomes a more interesting little child. And sick leave only means being with that child in the bad times not the good.

All too many of these schemes are a bit like bringing a homeless person into an elegant home, showing them a delicious meal set up, perhaps even letting them sit, briefly at that table, and then ushering the out the door and into some work dismal project. They offer just enough of a taste of motherhood to make working mothers even more miserable.

Far more good could be done if we made the social, cultural, and tax changes to create more mothers who are raising that child themselves. We need to fix this problem and not slap a maternal leave bandaid on what is, for many women, a horrible gapping wound-

--Michael W. Perry, My Nights with Leukemia: Caring for Children with Cancer
8 weeks ago
8 weeks ago Link To Comment
Not to mention that they don't tell you who pays the mother in outer countries. It isn't necessarily the employer.
8 weeks ago
8 weeks ago Link To Comment
Howdy Inkling Books
I have the same qualms about your ideas that I do about Harkins' - that this is a really good area for governments to stay out of.
Lower taxes, greater productivity, a thriving economy -- one of the benefits of these would be that some women who prefer to stay home (or perhaps men) would have that option. But it's not a proper goal of government and may not be a proper goal of society itself.
8 weeks ago
8 weeks ago Link To Comment
It is the eternal "union vs employer game (not really a game at all because it is deadly-serious for all concerned).

Unions see their job as getting the absolute MOST pay and benefits for the LEAST effort on their members' part.

Employers see their jab as getting the MOST work done for the LEAST amount of money paid out. Your first job as a manager is to make sure that the company makes enough money that 1) the paychecks don't bounce and 2) the stockholders get paid dividends.

With these ground rules in place, now throw in a MANDATED 12 weeks off for each female employee who gives birth (because that workers' job STILL has to get done even when she is absent, this means an employer has to hire a temporary (12 week) employee or, alternatively, keep a "spare" employee on the payroll full time to cover this possibility (a situation that unions would absolutely love!). Now, with the push to provide the same amount of "paternity" leave (in the name of "fairness" doncha know) for new fathers, what kind of "work around" will resourceful managers turn to? My logical brain says don't hire women of childbearing age or men who are married to women of that age. (Should be a boon to unemployed women in the 50+ age group.) It is either that of ship the whole shootin-match overseas where they don't have to put up with the PC bullsh*t.

Government mandates do NOT solve problems, they only create more of them (most of the time worse problems than the ones they are trying to solve). End of rant!
8 weeks ago
8 weeks ago Link To Comment
I was going to post a comment here, but you've already covered most of the points I was about to. Thanks.
8 weeks ago
8 weeks ago Link To Comment
1) Women do not have to get pregnant. 2) If a woman can bring a child to work so should a man be able to do so. 3) If a woman gets maternity leave, a man should get paternity leave after the child is born [assuming the couple is still cohabiting and sharing in child rearing chores]. 4) If a woman can claim leave privileges for "family" reasons a man should be able to do so, too. 5) All EEO rules and regulations should be gender neutral; there are lots of single dads out there.
8 weeks ago
8 weeks ago Link To Comment
Actually men CAN take advantage of the FMLA laws. The leave is unpaid, but FMLA leave is also unpaid for women. Women get 6 weeks or so of paid maternity leave through short-term disability / medical leave, just as a man would receive if he broke his leg or had cancer or some other medical disability that prevented him from working temporarily.
8 weeks ago
8 weeks ago Link To Comment
There are a lot of idiots in Congress and Tom Harkin ranks right up at the top of the list. Thank goodness he's retiring after this year. The US is already saddling employers with mandatory health insurance via ObamaCare, which will cost jobs, but adding required paid sick leave and maternity leave is just crazy. No wonder jobs are diminishing and the labor force participation rate is down.

We just had a negative growth quarter and with the policies of this administration and its cronies like Sen. Harkin, we could easily slip back into a recession (defined as a fall in GDP in 2 successive quarters). Democrats see employers only as a source of wealth that they should be ordered to give up to their employees in the form of mandated benefits.
8 weeks ago
8 weeks ago Link To Comment
Legislatures just don't understand that these high brow ideas have real negative consequences for women. When it comes to corporate America, everything comes down to a cost/benefit analysis. If I am hiring for a position, I always look at the cost. So if I have two equally qualified candidates, I have to look at other things that may cost my budget. These changes will hurt women, not help them.

Harkin's argument is ridiculous. It is completely inappropriate to bring a baby into the workplace. A nursing woman can certainly express milk and store it but expecting a company to be OK with bringing baby to work is just plain nuts. Outside of being disruptive to the workplace, you can have issues from a worker's comp standpoint. What if something happens and the baby is injured while in the workplace?

This is what happens when you have professional politicians that have never worked a day in the real world. They make policy that ultimately hurts those they say they want to help.
8 weeks ago
8 weeks ago Link To Comment
EXACTLY right! This nonsense of six months of PAID maternity leave will result in fewer women of child-bearing age being hired / promoted. When I began my career not so awfully long ago, young women were not promoted at the same rate as young men. In one of my performance reviews my boss actually TOLD me that it was hecause as a young single woman I was perceived as not being as stable an employee - meaning that they had an expectation that I would get married and leave to have babies. Of course, that was illegal even back then, so when I mentioned that conversation to the SVP of HR he begged me not to sue and I was promoted a couple of weeks later.

I know a lot has changed since then, but any regulations that require employers to pay and pay and pay for employees who aren't working will end up with employers less willing to hire and promote the recipients of the legal largesse, and will also make more employers more likely to offshore more jobs.

One more observation and I'll shut up: I think this mandatory paid maternity leave is coming up now so the Dems can use it as yet another arrow in their War on Women quiver. Honestly, I am beyond sick of this nonsense. They propose something that makes absolutely no economic sense, and when a conservative points out that it makes no sense, they scream "Racist!" or "War on Women!" Naturally the media jumps on board and the low information voters think the Dems have done something important.
8 weeks ago
8 weeks ago Link To Comment
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