It’s no secret that the United States is incredibly behind when it comes to supporting working parents. We are still one of the handful of countries that does not offer some sort of mandated, paid maternity/paternity leave. And now, with a new story of tragedy related to poor leave policies, more and more people are speaking out for change.
Amber Scorah recently shared her heartbreaking story in a piece for The New York Times’ Motherlode. Scorah details how she was given three months of paid leave from her NYC publishing job, and when she asked for an (unpaid) extension, she was denied one. As the parent that brought home the health insurance benefits, there was no way for her to quit to stay home just a few more months with her newborn son. So Scorah did what millions of working parents do: She signed her son up for day care.
Unfortunately her story has a tragic ending. On her first day back to work, Scorah dropped her 3-month-old son, Karl, off at day care, intending to see him at lunchtime, when she would pop in to nurse him. Only when she arrived, she saw a day care worker standing over her son, attempting CPR. Her son was dead.
Clearly Scorah’s story is a tragic one, and even she acknowledges that there are many what-if scenarios that may never have answers. But the one thing that could have been in place that may have helped is a stronger and more supportive postpartum leave policy. Better policies would also help parents who have to return to work only a week or a month after giving birth. So why is the U.S. so far behind, and how can we fix it? These are all questions many are asking, as evidenced by the numerous comments and responses to Scorah’s piece. People are demanding answers and change.
SheKnows spoke with Ruchika Tulshyan, author of The Diversity Advantage: Fixing Gender Inequality in the Workplace, to learn more. While not a mother yet, Tulshyan has done a lot of research on the topic, and the lack of paid leave in the U.S. has actually been a factor for her in considering where she wants to raise a family. “My husband and I have actually had long discussions about whether it makes financial sense to have kids in the U.S. I am from Singapore, where I would get four months paid leave plus flexibility plus affordable child care,” explains Tulshyan. “We have both even considered migrating to other parts of the world, such as the U.K., if a professional opportunity presents itself. It is tough to accept the lack of comprehensive parental leave combined with how culturally unacceptable it is for people to be working parents here.”
Tulshyan stresses that paid maternity leave can actually be beneficial for businesses, despite the assumption that it will hurt them financially. “A Vodafone study found it would save large companies $19 billion annually by doing so (vs. cost of hiring and training replacements for women who left to have babies). Other benefits include increased employee retention overall (women who are offered comprehensive maternity leave are more likely to remain at a company), and parental leave is something more millennial employees — soon to be our largest generation at work — expect. It is not just a ‘nice thing to do.'”
However, even when policies are in place, there is still a cultural hump to overcome. “Companies that offer comprehensive parental leave must work towards making it acceptable for employees to actually take it,” says Tulshyan. “In Amber’s case, it wouldn’t be enough just for her to have been given maternity leave; it was clear there would be major repercussions if she took more leave, even unpaid, like being fired.”
While change has been incredibly slow in this country, and workers are still being penalized, Tulshyan says the small progress that has been made is hopeful. “The good news is many companies are recognizing how important this is,” she says. “While really, a huge responsibility lies in policy overhaul, more companies like Netflix, Amazon and Google recognize the business case for it… there’s even a sort of an ‘arms race’ competition going on over who offers the best policy, so that’s encouraging to see, though not nearly fast enough, nor in nearly enough industries.”
Above all, it’s become clear that lack of paid maternity and paternity leave has become a matter of life and death in this country, and we can’t ignore that anymore.