Baby Steps: How the Pandemic Shows Us That America is Failing Its Parents

By: Amanda Grau

Trying to work full-time at home with a new baby during a pandemic is not easy, but it might be an improvement to choosing between paying rent and time for postpartum recovery and child bonding.[3] Being forced to decide between those things should never be normal, yet the United States is the only high-income nation that does not offer parents paid leave.[4]

The argument for guaranteed paid parental leave in the United States is not new. At this point, arguing yet again that the U.S. should ensure its citizens can afford to take time off after bringing a child into their lives feels akin to screaming at a brick wall. Of the 193 countries in the United Nations, the United States, New Guinea, Suriname, and a few South Pacific island nations are the only member states without national paid parental leave laws.[5] More than fifty countries offer six or more months of paid maternity leave, and many offer fourteen weeks or more for paid paternity leave.[6] The United States is left in the antiquated dust, offering only twelve weeks of unpaid family leave.

It is not for nothing that the overwhelming majority of countries mandate paid parental leave; statistics show that paid leave policies are incredibly beneficial. According to the World Bank, adequate paid leave for the birth of a child for parents should be a priority for economic development.[7] Paid leave leads to lower infant mortality rates, improved health of the birth parent, higher women’s participation in the workforce, and increased breastfeeding rates.[8] Additionally, the International Labor Organization recommends fourteen weeks of paid leave and pointed out in a 2020 report that paid paternity leave leads to increased inclusivity in the workplace.[9]

With no mandated paid parental leave, only seventeen percent of U.S. civilian workers have access to paid family leave through an employer.[10] The only leave protections U.S. workers have is through the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA), which provides for twelve weeks of unpaid maternity leave.[11] Even that limited support fails to actually protect all citizens: only about sixty percent of Americans are eligible.[12]

Slowly, however, things are shifting in the United States through state legislation. In 2020, a federal law was passed that provided 12 weeks of paid parental leave for federal employees.[13] Eight states (California, Connecticut, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, Rhode Island, and Washington) plus the District of Columbia currently mandate paid family leave of some kind.[14] Colorado and Oregon are joining that number soon with new legislation. Rhode Island has the most generous state-run paid family leave program in the U.S., with a protected thirty weeks after a child’s birth, adoption, or foster care placement.[15] Next is Massachusetts, with twenty-six weeks.

Some states, however, set length of employment limitations on who can access paid leave, exacerbating the wealth and privilege gap. For example, New York offers twelve weeks of paid leave only to those who work twenty-six consecutive weeks, working 20 or more hours per week.[16] Employees can also qualify if they work 175 days in a year for less than 20 hours per week. You started your job six months ago? Too bad, no leave for you.[17]

These baby steps are clearly not enough. The United States is harming its citizens so acutely that life during a pandemic is preferable for some people over life before. It is imperative that the United States catch up to the rest of the world and guarantee its citizens paid parental leave. As the last holdout, we are only hurting ourselves. 


[1] See Seraphina Seow, The Pandemic Anniversary is Coming. Here’s How to Cope, Self, Feb. 26, 2021, https://www.self.com/story/pandemic-anniversary.

[2] Victoria Livingston, What the Pandemic Teaches Us About the Need for Parental Leave, Wash. Post, March 4, 2021, https://www.washingtonpost.com/lifestyle/2021/03/04/pandemic-parental-leave/.

[3] This is still normal for many parents. An entire journal article would be needed to analyze injustices faced by parents who lost their jobs or are risking their health and children’s health working in so-called “essential” positions. See Miles Bryan, Essential Workers are 55% More Likely to Get COVID-19, Study of Philly-area Residents Finds, WHYY Radio Times, Mar. 3, 2021, https://whyy.org/articles/essential-workers-are-55-more-likely-to-get-covid-19-study-of-philly-area-residents-finds/. I write “essential” in quotes because there is some argument over what constitutes essential. Is it essential that a restaurant worker, paid far less than minimum wage, risk their lives so we can continue to eat out? As states start vaccinating workers, that definition becomes even more muddied. See Laura Lee, Who is a ‘Frontline Essential Worker’ in North Carolina?, Carolina Public Press, Feb. 12, 2021, https://carolinapublicpress.org/42397/who-is-a-frontline-essential-worker-in-north-carolina/.

[4] Dominic Hernandez, Fast Facts: Maternity Leave Policies Across the Globe, Texas A&M Vital Record, Jan. 23, 2018, https://vitalrecord.tamhsc.edu/fast-facts-maternity-leave-policies-across-globe/.

[5] Id.

[6] Id.

[7] Katrin Shulz, Why Parental Leave Matters for Development, World Bank Blogs (Feb. 19, 2020), https://blogs.worldbank.org/developmenttalk/why-parental-leave-matters development#:~:text=Ensuring%20that%20mothers%20and%20fathers,participation%20and%20increased%20breastfeeding%20rates.

[8] Id.

[9] See Women in Managerial and Leadership Positions in the G20 – Data Availability and Preliminary Findings, Int. Labour Org., Oct. 24, 2020, https://www.ilo.org/global/about-the-ilo/how-the-ilo-works/multilateral-system/g20/leaders-summits/saudi-arabia/WCMS_762098/lang–en/index.htm.

[10] Access to Paid and Unpaid Family Leave in 2018, U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (Feb. 27, 2019), https://www.bls.gov/opub/ted/2019/access-to-paid-and-unpaid-family-leave-in-2018.htm.

[11] 29 U.S.C.A. Ch. 28 § 2614 (2008).

[12] Miranda Bryant, Maternity Leave: US Policy is Worst on List of the World’s Richest Countries, The Guardian, Jan. 27, 2020, https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2020/jan/27/maternity-leave-us-policy-worst-worlds-richest-countries#:~:text=United%20States%20%E2%80%93%200%20weeks%20FRE,60%25%20of%20workers%20are%20eligible.

[13] Federal Employee Paid Leave Act, 85 Fed. Reg. 48075 (Oct. 1, 2020).

[14] Rachel Blakely-Gray, States with Paid Family Leave (+ Map & Chart), Patriot Software (Jan. 18, 2021), https://www.patriotsoftware.com/blog/payroll/states-with-paid-family-leave/.

[15] Id.

[16] Id.

[17] Victoria Livingston, What the Pandemic Teaches Us About the Need for Parental Leave, Wash. Post, Mar. 4, 2021, https://www.washingtonpost.com/lifestyle/2021/03/04/pandemic-parental-leave/.