Jessica Shortall and Laura Legg Photography

We are the 47%: Women, Work, and #PaidLeave


For all of human history, bringing a new life into the world has deserved and required rest, and healing, and bonding. Nothing on that front has changed. Yet in America, we have decided that a new baby can be, for the baby and its parents, wham-bam-thank-you-ma’am-ed in a couple of days or weeks of unpaid time off. (88% of working mothers have no access to paid leave, and half of working mothers aren’t even eligible for unpaid leave.)

Here’s what that does:

  1. Increases postpartum mood disorders (which are, in turn, the second most common cause of death in a woman’s first year postpartum)
  2. Decreases immunization and well-check rates for babies
  3. Increases the wealth gap, which is much more a man-mother thing than a man-woman thing

And yet every statement on the clear moral, economic, and health case for paid leave (for parents of any gender) is routinely met with cries of “having a baby is a choice!” (a fascinating argument, given who tends to make it) and “I didn’t make you have that baby; why should I pay for it?” Collectively paying into a public good, which population replenishment most certainly is, is at the core of a functioning economy. Childless people pay property taxes that fund public schools. Pacificts’ tax dollars support our military expenditures. This argument is, in short, idiotic.

The only group that seems to get it – at least on the surface – is corporate America. 2015 saw a flood of new paid leave policies for highly-skilled, white-collar workers. It’s the newest tool in the war for talent. But this trend is worrisome, because it’s being called a solution to a nationwide problem. Examples: Marco Rubio wants paid leave to be optional for employers and Carly Fiorina thinks the market can solve it. Well…could corporate America figure out paid leave for every working family? No. We need only look at Amazon and Netflix – both lauded this year for their new paid leave policies – to realize that low-income workers (a workforce that is 2/3 women) will always be left out. Amazon‘s hundreds of thousands of temporary and hourly workers are left out of its amazing new parental leave policy. Netflix is offering unlimited paid leave to all employees except the low-earning folks in its DVD-packing business.  Why? Because these companies see paid leave only as a recruitment and retention tool for their highly sought-after employees. Another thing these policies don’t do? Protect employees’ access to leave when they change jobs – which, in a highly fluid and mobile economy, happens a lot. This is the definition of a market failure, and therefore the exactly right place for government action.

We need national, universal paid leave. Don’t listen to the “Who is going to pay for it??!?!?” trolls on the internet. It is totally feasible to create a pool of funds, paid into with contributions from all employers and employees, so that risk is spread out and small businesses don’t get whacked with unbearable, sudden expenses. A recent study of California’s paid leave law, in place since 2004, shows that the vast majority of employers – including small businesses – report neutral or positive impacts on productivity, profitability, and performance. Another reason we know it can work: almost every other economy on earth does it.

Truly universal paid leave is the only way to end the widening haves-vs-have-nots game that these corporate paid leave policies are highlighting. Make no mistake about it: To claim that the market can solve this problem is to actually use the word “solution” to describe a situation that heavily favors the already-well-off. Far more high-income families get necessary time at home with a new baby, while low-income women stagger back to work within days of giving birth. This is some Hunger Game-level stuff happening now. When a woman with a master’s degree has a baby, her body and mind do not need more rest than the home health aide who makes near-minimum-wage working with elderly patients. When a father in a six-figure job has a baby, his family does not need him at home more than the father who works three part-time jobs to make ends meet. Every hard-working family is part of the American dream.

Here’s the silver lining: 2015 is year that WE started to speak up with full-throated voices. Amber Scorah told the heart-wrenching story of her baby’s death on his first day in daycare. Katey Zeh talked about her lack of paid leave as a contractor for a faith-based organization that itself is an advocate for maternal health. Reporters at In These Times and New Republic made us sob at our desks. And I had the opportunity to stand on the TEDx stage and tell ten women’s stories – stories that broke my heart and then filled me with fire to DO something.

Our stories need to be a flood: of adoptions and NICUs, of ineligibility for FMLA and short-term disability, or going back to work while bleeding or struggling with post-partum depression or anxiety, of draining savings accounts to fund unpaid leave time, of maybe not having that second baby because the lack of leave with the first was too traumatic.

They will say we’re asking for handouts. They will say we should have planned better, and saved money to fund our own leave time. They will speak from a place of privilege and of total un-knowing of any financial situation other than their own. They will say our babies are not their problem. They will cry socialism and fascism (a hilarious combination), and reference Venezuela and North Korea. They will lie and say paid leave will hurt small businesses (see: California study above). They will lie and say that paid leave will make companies not hire women of childbearing age. Just you watch.

They will say all of this, and that’s why we all have to speak, no matter how scary it is to tell these stories. Start here: send your story to your Congressperson and Senator – and to your state representatives – and DO NOT let them get away with sending you a canned answer. You hit REPLY on that mess and tell them that you are their constituent and that you demand a real response, not some copy-and-paste nonsense. And then take 30 seconds to add your name in support of the Family Act – our first real hope, in a long time, of fixing this mess.

Women make up 47% of the American workforce, and we are the sole or primary breadwinners in 40% of households. My definition of feminism is refusing to accept that something that only or primarily affects women is a women’s problem only. This is an American problem, and it’s time for US to #leadonleave.

Disclaimer: This post was written by a Feministing Community user and does not necessarily reflect the views of any Feministing columnist, editor, or executive director.

Dallas, TX

Jessica Shortall is a thirty-something working mother of two who is passionate about paid maternity leave, and about making breastfeeding and working less weird and confusing. She had both of her kids while traveling extensively as the first Director of Giving for TOMS Shoes, a job that had her literally circumnavigating the globe with a breast pump. Now, she's interviewed hundreds of working moms to compile their hacks, survival strategies, and war stories in her book, Work. Pump. Repeat: The New Mom's Survival Guide to Breastfeeding and Going Back to Work. She's a vocal advocate for paid family leave, and a straight ally working in the LGBT rights space in Texas.

author, working mother & paid family leave advocate, LGBT straight ally

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