Maternity/Paternity Leave in the US

Unlike comparable countries, the US federal government does not require businesses to provide paid maternity or paternity leave to new parents. Luckily for some US parents, a handful of states have recently implemented state-level family leave laws that seek to bring their local jurisdiction into the developed world. This blog post looks at how families of infants rearrange their lives to provide care and shows that the handful of state laws have an effect large enough to be seen in nation-wide data. 

Newborns require a lot of care and this care work is critical for the newborn and for society. Yet without federal protections for new parents, only 21 percent of workers have access to paid family leave as of March 2020. Further, there are substantial racial disparities in who has access; Black and Latino parents are less likely to have the already rare jobs that come with paid family benefits. Most new parents therefore face a dilemma: caring for their child during the critical first few months means giving up income. 

As families with a new child temporarily rearrange their lives to care for the child, they go about it in a number of ways. Some parents (or other relatives) take weeks or months off from their job (paid or unpaid) with the expectation of returning, some work reduced hours, some leave their job completely with no expectation of returning, while others keep working. Next, I use survey data to approximate these groups and test the effect of having an infant on the number of hours people spend at their jobs during the reference week of the survey. Specifically, I look at two groups of adults ages 18 to 54: the first group lives with a related infant (under age 1), while the youngest related child in the second group is five years old.

Survey data confirm that care required by infants constrains how many hours their adult family members spend at work (chart 1). In 2000, 35 percent of the adult family members of infants did not work at all during the survey week, compared to 23.5 percent of adults in families where the youngest child is five years old. Comparable data for 2020 show the same overall pattern, with 36.2 percent of infants’ family not at work, compared to 28.4 for families where the youngest kid is five. The next section looks at whether those not at work expect to go back to a job.

Some infants’ family members who were not working in the survey reference week are employed but absent from their job, whether paid or not. In 2000, 3.4 percent of infants’ adult family report being on maternity or paternity leave, and an additional two percent report being absent for other reasons such as taking personal leave (chart 2). Among families where the youngest child is five years old, maternity or paternity leave (for example for adoption) is much more rare, while rates of other absences are about the same. 

Importantly, however, the vast majority of those who report working zero hours during the reference week do not actually have a job. In 2000, 22.8 percent of adult family members of infants did not have a job and reported their main activity as family or home responsibilities, compared to 13.5 percent among families where the youngest child is age five. An additional 3.8 percent of family members of infants reported not being employed for another reason, such as school, a disability, or having trouble finding work, compared to 5.3 percent of families where the youngest child is five. 

In the latest data, covering September to November 2020, infants’ family members are less likely to be non-employed caregivers (19.6 percent of the group, compared to 22.8 percent in 2000) and more likely to be on maternity or paternity leave (5.5 percent of the group, compared to 3.4 percent in 2000)1. This seems to be an encouraging development coming from the state paid family leave laws.

Digging into the causes for the increase in maternity/paternity leave, a few US states have enacted paid family leave laws, starting with California in 2002. In some form or another, by the middle of 2020, five states and the District of Columbia have these laws in place (the others are New Jersey, Rhode Island, New York, and Washington state). Three more states (Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Oregon) have passed laws but have not yet begun paying benefits. 

We can see the early result of state paid family leave laws after separating the adult family of infants by whether or not they live in a state that has implemented paid family leave as of September 2020 (chart 3). In 2000, incidence of paid family leave was nearly equal between the two groups of states; neither group had paid family leave laws at the time. In 2020, among states that implemented laws, incidence of paid family leave is nearly five times higher than it was in 2000. Unpaid leave has fallen among states with paid leave laws, but still exists as there are gaps and limits in the various state systems. 

In general, use of maternity and paternity leave has grown since 2000, but much of this change has come from various state efforts to make life easier for new parents. Critically, surveys of both employees and employers show the laws are a success. In California, the first state to implement paid family leave, surveys of employers show higher productivity, higher employee morale, and, in some cases, even cost savings for businesses. A federal law guaranteeing paid family leave is long overdue and would resolve the income dilemma faced by new parents with massive care responsibilities. 

1 It’s worth noting that the 5.5 percent figure is not measuring the share of new parents taking maternity or paternity leave, but instead measures adult family members of infants under age 1 who report maternity or paternity leave as the reason they were absent from work in the reference week. In other words, if the source data captured only new parents with infants less than 12 weeks old, the share on family leave would be much higher, perhaps 3 or 4 times the 5.5 percent rate listed for all adult family members of infants.

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