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Time Off With Baby: The Case for Paid Care Leave

Susan M

By Susan Muenchow

When I had a baby in 1973, I had no access to maternity leave, so I returned to work two weeks after my daughter was born.  Trying to concentrate at work after being awakened every two hours during the night was exhausting; missing out on the first weeks with my baby was sad and guilt-provoking.  Ultimately, I got another week off – but only because I wound up in the hospital with a breast infection.

In 2005, when my daughter gave birth to a child, she was fortunate to have several months of job-protected leave and to live in California, one of two states (the other is New Jersey) which offer part-paid family leave.  California’s Paid Family Leave program, in combination with State Disability Insurance, can add up to 16 weeks of part-paid leave for new mothers; new fathers can qualify for an additional six weeks of part-paid family leave.

Unfortunately, most new mothers and fathers in the U.S. still do not have access to job-protected much less paid leave.  One in four mothers returns to work within two months of giving birth, and 41% within three months, compared to only 7 % of their counterparts in the U.K.   Fathers take more time off to be with their newborn babies than in the past, but rarely more than a week.  

The Family and Medical Act (FMLA) enacted in 1993 has increased access to job-protected leave, but strict prior work requirements result in many workers being unprotected. Without wage replacement, many low-income employees cannot afford to take the leave.  The U.S. is the only advanced industrialized nation which does not offer paid leave for either mothers or fathers following the birth or adoption of a child. 

Concerned about the absence of an equitable leave policy, and with support from the Smith Richardson Foundation, I joined with Edward Zigler, Sterling Professor emeritus of psychology at Yale University, and Christopher Ruhm, professor of public policy and economics at University of Virginia, to co-author a book, Time Off with Baby: The Case for Paid Care Leave published by ZERO TO THREE last month.

We found that:

We therefore propose a three-month, publicly supported paid leave, supplemented by three months of job-protected leave, with a two-week “use it or lose it” bonus to encourage fathers to take part of the leave.  More part-time workers would qualify for job-protected leave, and there would be no minimum business size requirement for paid leave. 

The cost of our proposed leave policy is low, and the projected savings are substantial.  By facilitating breastfeeding and childhood immunizations, a paid leave policy could save up to $13 billion in expenditures for treatment of infectious disease.  By supporting a period for families to attune to their new babies, the policy could have long-term benefits for child development.By allowing mothers to take time off with a new baby without exiting the labor force, a paid leave policy would reduce the lifetime wage penalty that most women currently pay for becoming mothers.  A paid leave policy could also benefit employers by reducing employee turnover and expenditures for re-training.  In short, we see little downside to offering a modest paid leave policy for infant care, and great cost in having the United States continue to be the only advanced industrialized nation without such a policy.

Co-author Susan Muenchow, a principal research analyst at the American Institutes for Research, is a policy specialist and writer in the area of child development and social policy.
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