In Iowa, and throughout the nation, we profess how much we respect and value parents, especially mothers. But have those emotions become collective action?
In every measure of family policy, the answer is no. The United States ranks last in government-supported time off for new parents, and is one of only three countries worldwide to offer no paid maternity leave. Although Congress passed a bipartisan, universal child care bill in the early 1970s, President Richard Nixon vetoed the measure against advice from his own administration officials. Beyond subsidies for families in extreme poverty, the issue has never been raised again. No national health or safety standards have been developed, and child care expenses now often surpass college tuition and rent payments. In Iowa, according to data from ChildCare Aware of America, the annual cost for an infant in a child care center is $2,000 more than tuition at a public college.
While other countries have laws that require shorter work hours, such as the European Work Time Directive that limits workers to 48 hours each week including overtime, the national Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 in the U.S. protects only hourly workers from overtime by requiring employers to pay time and a half for anything over 40 hours per week. U.S. salaried workers have no federal protection.
The U.S., again unlike other countries, has no national vacation policy and no mandate for workers to rest. Like many workforce issues, discretion is given to employers, and some provide for workers better than others. A 2018 study by the Congressional Research Service indicates only 13 percent of private industry workers in the U.S. have access to employer-provided paid family leave. In contrast, Australia, the country closest to the U.S. in this particular ranking, provides its mothers an average of 7.6 weeks of paid maternity leave. And, all full-time Australian workers are eligible for up to 10 days of paid leave each year to care for a sick family or household member. In Belgium, workers can take up to three months.
The one bill the U.S. has passed, the Family Medical Leave Act, offers only unpaid leave of up to 12 weeks each year to care for yourself, a child or a family member. It is limited to workers in companies with 50 or more employees within a certain mile radius, and only those who are full-time and have been with the company for at least 12 months. As a result, about 40 percent of the U.S. workforce isn’t covered by the law.
In Iowa, pregnant female workers may also be able to take up to eight weeks of pregnancy disability leave, not all of it paid. There is no law, federal or state, that provides for paid paternity leave under any circumstance.
Instead of bolstering the support offered to parents through federal leave policies, U.S. lawmakers have instead recently made changes to protect employers from the expenses of providing leave. For instance, the Strong Families Act, which became law in December 2017, allows employers to claim tax credits for a portion of wages paid to certain employees taking family or medical leave.
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Perhaps a partial result, the U.S. has become a country with one of the highest gender wage gaps in the world, which claims the highest maternal and child poverty rates.
MOMS IN THE WORKFORCE
According to a recent survey by Motherly, more than half of working moms, 55 percent, feel working has empowered or inspired them to be a better mom. And 90 percent say their work choice has helped them set a positive example for their children.
However, while survey respondents report working benefits motherhood, they don’t believe motherhood benefits moms at the workplace.
Career trade-offs are commonplace when becoming a parent, said 78 percent of mothers. Managing those trade-offs can be “extremely challenging” for 51 percent of women, leaving them “discouraged.”
For the most part, moms are in the workforce because of financial reasons, but many also hold a strong desire to “participate in work outside of the household.” Many who don’t work when their children are younger, plan to return to the workforce at a later time.
But even those who work and are able to navigate the trade-offs would like a helping hand. Breastfeeding moms need employer support beyond the privacy of bathroom stalls, moms-to-be would benefit from longer and paid maternity leave, and most would use on-site day care facilities or other child care subsidies. Women, but especially moms, would like to find positions with flexible schedules or remote working opportunities.
The ongoing lack of such initiatives have led women to take a step back when they become parents. More than half of moms surveyed by Motherly reported downgrading their work hours, even as their parenting partners escalate their careers.
Regardless of race, ethnicity, age, or number of children, a majority (85 percent) of all moms agreed that society doesn’t understand or support them.
Caitlyn Collins, assistant professor of sociology at Washington University in St. Louis, spent five years studying 135 middle-class parents in the U.S. and three other countries and released the details of her findings earlier this year in a book, “Making Motherhood Work.” She offers a research-based assessment of how the U.S. and its policies are failing families and especially mothers. Lack of support, she says, has led to a need for “work-family justice,” which is assurance that “every member of society has the opportunity and power to fully participate in both paid work and family care.”
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“Women’s perspectives should be central to any endeavors in the U.S. to craft, advocate for, and implement work-family policy as a force for social change,” Collins said. “By gaining firsthand knowledge of how working mothers combine paid work with child-rearing in countries with diverse policy supports, I expose both the promise and the limits of work-family policy for reducing mothers’ work-family conflict and achieving gender equality.”
She adds, ““Working mothers’ struggles to reconcile employment and motherhood, as well as the policy solutions to resolve this conflict — are of urgent public concern. Our government depends on mothers. So why are we failing to support them?”
As Iowans fight for future growth, especially in the area of providing a skilled workforce, these are key questions lawmakers and business leaders must answer. And we can follow the lead of other states that aren’t waiting for the federal government. California, New York, Rhode Island and New Jersey have required paid family leave. Programs are in the works in Massachusetts and Washington.
Iowa can be on the forefront of providing for the needs of its families. Our public policy can reflect the respect and value we’ve assigned to mothers, today and every day.
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