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

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.