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Why unpaid maternity leave isn't enough

Earlier versions would have given all workers 26 weeks for medical leave and 18 for parental leave. But in its anemic final form, the Family and Medical Leave Act grants only 12 weeks off and covers only a little more than half of workers, leaving out those who work for companies with fewer than 50 employees or who have logged less than 1,250 hours in the past year. And because the leave is unpaid, many of those who are covered can't afford to take the time off.

The impact of our national policy is brutal. According to research by economists Sara Markowitz and Pinka Chatterji and published in 2008 by the National Bureau of Economic Research, women who return to work soon after the birth of a child are more likely to get depressed than other mothers. They're also less healthy: According to the study, longer maternity leaves are associated with improvements in mothers' overall health.

And, not surprisingly, the lack of time together hurts mothers' relationships with their infants. Mothers who went back to work before the six-month mark were less likely to tickle, play with or cuddle their infants than those who returned between six and nine months after giving birth, according to a 2006 nationwide study by Child Trends, a research group.

The effect of all this on babies can be serious and lasting: In an article published in the The Economic Journal in 2005, researchers found that infants whose mothers had 12 weeks of maternity leave or fewer had lower cognitive test scores and higher rates of behavior problems at age four than children whose mothers had longer leaves. In Europe, longer paid maternity leaves are linked to lower infant and child mortality.

But as inadequate as the FMLA is, its passage offers useful lessons. Liberals who spearheaded the effort managed to make common case with some conservatives concerned about "values" issues. For example, they won over Henry Hyde, then a Republican congressman from Illinois who opposed maternity leave, by convincing him that job-protected time off from work would help bring down the abortion rate.

If a new drive for paid leave is to gain traction, similar alliances will be key. Support is strong across the ideological spectrum, should anyone try to span it. According to a survey of more than 3,400 adults conducted by the Rockefeller Foundation and Time in September, 62 percent of Republicans and 74 percent of evangelical Christians believe that businesses should be "required to provide paid family and medical leave for every worker who needs it." With support even higher among Democrats, it's hard to think of another issue that unites so many voters but remains so perennially neglected.

Another challenge will be to explain to businesses that they aren't expected to bear the financial burden. In California and New Jersey, the states that already provide paid family leave, benefits -- in both cases, up to six weeks off, partially paid, for workers to care for either a sick family member or a new baby -- are funded entirely by employee contributions through an extension of the states' temporary disability insurance plans.

Finally, states probably need to pass paid leave laws before such legislation can succeed nationally. Unpaid leave followed this pattern; at least 34 states had enacted unpaid family leave laws by the time the FMLA was signed. Auspiciously, the Obama administration's budget for next year includes $50 million for a State Paid Leave Fund that would help launch state programs.

"This money is really important. Already, about half of the states are doing something to move toward paid leave -- holding hearings or introducing legislation," says Debra Ness, president of the National Partnership for Women and Families. "This could be the push that would enable them to take that next step."

With that next step as a start, maybe we could have a national paid leave law by, say, 2019 -- only a century after we missed our first opportunity.

Sharon Lerner is the author of "The War on Moms: On Life in a Family-Unfriendly Nation."

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