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Good Business, Good Outcomes: Paid Family Leave and Improving Child Health

This January, we’re taking inspiration from businesses across the country that are bringing a new perspective to how we think about health and well-being. These companies and industries are challenging conventional wisdom about the role of business, competition for talent and sales, and what makes a smart investment (hint: good business can be good for child health). Each blog, we’ll share an exciting change or trend in business and highlight the impact on child and family health. Read on for our first installment.


A quiet groundswell of change is coming up through board rooms, employee handbooks and recruitment practices across the country. It is fed by our increasingly global economy, changing workforce, aging population and declining birth rates. It is anchored in research and elevated by social cache. And among my peer group, it is discussed in near reverential language.

It is the meaningful family leave policy: to be used for such universal life events as a personal illness, care of a parent, or – the gold standard for my age group – parental leave for a new child. Meaningful is code for “a minimum of twelve weeks,” “does not limit benefits to a (archaically designated) primary caregiver,” and “paid.”

(This is where you imagine the special effect of an angel choir singing “Hallelujah.”)

America is the only industrialized country that does not guarantee paid family leave. In 2017, there were around 152 million Americans working in full or part-time jobs – a little less than half of our total population. A little more than half of workers have unpaid job protection for up to twelve weeks through the Family Medical Leave Act. Until quite recently, earning paid family leave as part of a total compensation package was for an elite few - estimated at 14 percent of the private workforce.

Global Parental Leave Policies

This past year, however, was described as a “tipping point” by advocacy group PL+US in regards to companies establishing and advertising paid family leave for employees. In 2018 alone, twenty major employers introduced paid leave programs, expanding benefits to more than 4.8 million people. PL+US tracks eligibility and quality of these programs through their employer scorecard, which profiles America’s 70 largest companies’ family leave programs and policy positions.

These changes have major impacts on the way employees and businesses operate. Increasing transparency on companies’ family leave policies is reinforcing shifts in worker expectations and priorities. Paid family leave is more and more a factor when recruiting and retaining talent, particularly for mothers returning to work after giving birth. In turn, long-held assumptions about the affordability and desirability of such benefits are being challenged. In practice, the return on investment for paid family leave has proven to be a strong bet. For example, an evaluation of the state of California’s paid family leave program found that nearly 90% of businesses reported the additional benefit did not increase costs, and 9% say they saved money, because of decreased turnover or benefit payments.

These private-sector shifts are also creating momentum for long-overdue changes to public policy. The Family Medical Leave Act marks its 25th anniversary this year, with only a few state-level advancements during the interim years. A coalition of advocates and policymakers will push the FAMILY Act once again during this Congressional session. Endorsed by the American Academy of Pediatrics, the FAMILY Act creates a national insurance program – functioning similarly to a disability insurance benefit – to ensure FMLA leaves-of-absence are partially paid for up to twelve weeks. Recent polls show that public support for paid family leave policies are near universal, clocking strong majorities of support across age, gender and party line.

Paid family leave policies have also been demonstrated to directly improve child and family health in the near and long-term. The weeks following childbirth are critically important period of recovery and bonding for a mother, her child, and the overall family. In most cases, parents who are forced to return to work early do so because they have no job protection, or because they cannot afford to go unpaid for twelve weeks. In one study commissioned by the Department of Labor, one in four women returned to work within two weeks after giving birth. It pains me to even write that sentence.

Consider this:

  • At least 12 weeks of parental leave increases the likelihood that a newborn receives his or her recommended check-ups, immunizations, and developmental assessments.

  • Taking maternity leave is demonstrated to decrease post-natal depression, which can interfere with bonding and can have an overall negative effect on a child’s cognitive, social and emotional development. One study found that a one-week increase in maternity leave was associated with a 5 to 6 percent reduction in depressive symptoms from six to 24 months after birth.

  • Fathers who are able to take paternity leave with their children report similar benefits, increasing a sense of bonding and connection with their child and lessening family stress.

  • Maternity leave is also demonstrated to increase initiation and duration of breastfeeding. Breastfeeding has many positive effects, including increasing mother/baby bonding, stimulating development, strengthening the baby’s immune system, and decreasing risks of various health problems, including obesity, allergies, and Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS).

  • A 2011 study by economist Dr. Christopher Ruhm projected that offering an additional 10 weeks of paid leave could reduce infant mortality by as much as 10 percent.

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