Women and Children First? Who Should Get Paid Sick Leave
Should mothers get paid leave from work because they choose to have a baby? What about fathers?
The Glass Hammer raises these questions in “The Case for Paid Parental Leave,” but by limiting the question to parents, it weakens its argument.
New parents aren’t entitled to any paid leave at all under American law. About 60% of American workers are covered by the Family Medical Leave Act, but that guarantees 12 weeks of unpaid leave. It says nothing about paid leave. The other 40% of employees are at the mercy of their employers or of state and local laws when they need time off.
People who need leave for medical reasons are in exactly the same boat. Whether ill themselves or caring for a sick relative, only 60% of employees have the right to some unpaid leave under federal law, and there is no federal right to paid leave.
This is a broken system — actually, it is barely a system at all. A substantial number of working Americans may not be able to take a single day off if they have or adopt a baby, become ill, or have to care for a sick family member. If they have no choice but to take a day off they are at risk of losing their jobs. Many people cannot afford that risk: in my work as an advocate for homeless people, I encountered families who lost their housing and wound up on the street because they had to miss work for parental or medical reasons and were fired.
The only humane question is not whether paid leave should be mandatory; it is who should have the right to use it. The Glass Hammer argues for leave for mothers and fathers, but workers with medical problems need it too.
Though it would be a step forward, it would be unfair and short-sighted to grant paid leave to new mothers and no one else. As senior economist at the Center for Economic and Policy Research John Schmitt notes, offering mothers more or better leave than fathers “completely reinforces the cultural expectation that women take care of children and men continue to work.” (Schmitt and his colleagues at CEPR studied parental leave worldwide and concluded that the U.S. is at the bottom of the barrel of economically comparable countries.)
Even worse than reinforcing the expectation that caring for children is women’s responsibility, granting paid leave to mothers and not fathers would make that expectation reality. Aside from families with the resources for a father to take unpaid leave, parents would have no choice but for the father to continue working at his job while the mother took time off to care for the new child. Allowing only mothers to take paid leave would be institutionalized discrimination. And denying paid leave to the sick and their caretakers is simply cruel.
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