The U.S. is still the only wealthy country that doesn’t guarantee paid parental leave for employees, so rights for working parents are largely won at the state level.
Some states are fighting harder than others.
The National Partnership for Women and Families recently released a U.S. “report card” assigning all 50 states, plus the District of Columbia, an A-F grade based on the breadth of policies they've aimed at working families. There were no perfect scores -- the partnership assigned just three A grades (and 12 Fs), but there were no A+ states -- but the spots that topped the rankings offered some mix of mandated parental leave, paid sick days, and accommodations for pregnant women and nursing mothers.
As the changing needs of modern families continue to influence political discourse, these state-level victories are re-shaping national sentiment, says Vicki Shabo, vice president of the Partnership. “This is a critical juncture,” she says. “The buzz around these policies is at an all-time high, and it’s creating opportunities for regular people to have their voices heard.”
Here are the places that are molding the conversation -- and those holding it back.
The Top 3: California, New York, Washington D.C.
The federal Family and Medical Leave Act mandates 12 weeks of unpaid leave for certain public and private sector employees, but some spots have gone much further. These three -- all of which provide expansive accommodation for pregnant and nursing workers -- earned an A or A- from the organization.
- California -- the valedictorian, if you will, with the only unqualified A grade -- guarantees private-sector workers six weeks of paid family leave, which can be extended if a medical condition arises.
- New York (A-) private-sector employees will be able to take eight weeks of paid leave starting in 2018, and 12 weeks in 2021.
- In Washington, D.C. (A-), workers can take up to 16 weeks of job-protected leave over two years to care for a new child or a family member with a health condition -- although it's unpaid leave -- and most private-sector workers have job-protected sick days.
Many of these policies passed with bipartisan support, Shabo says. “These aren’t red or blue issues,” she says. “People want and need these policies.”
The B-Grade States: Rhode Island, Connecticut, Hawaii, New Jersey, Oregon, Vermont, Illinois, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Washington, Maine
Many states have implemented some laws aimed at strengthening working families. The report called out a few in particular:
- Rhode Island (B+) requires four weeks of paid family leave for private-sector workers, but doesn’t require employers to provide nursing mothers reasonable break time to breastfeed or express breast milk.
- Illinois (B) has robust pregnancy and nursing accommodations, but doesn’t mandate parental leave or sick days.
- Massachusetts (B) guarantees access to paid sick time and 24 hours of “small necessities” leave (for school activities, or to accompany a child to a medical appointment, for instance) -- but doesn’t mandate pregnancy accommodations like restricting heavy lifting or allowing frequent bathroom breaks.
The Failing Grades: Alabama, Arizona, Georgia, Idaho, Michigan, Mississippi, Missouri, Nevada, Oklahoma, South Carolina, South Dakota, Wyoming
At the other end of the spectrum, a dozen other states earned an F grade for neglecting to pass a single law above the federal standard.
Workplace inflexibility has serious repercussions for working parents, says Nicki Gilmour, an organizational psychologist and workplace consultant. “People aren’t robots,” she says. “Bad policies leave employees physically exhausted and mentally checked out at work. Productivity is low, and resentment is high. It’s counterintuitive.”
Why You Should Care -- Even if You’re Not a Parent
Even non-parents seem to benefit when employers offer paid leave and flexible work schedules benefit all employees. A 2011 Gallup poll found that flexible work arrangements were “highly correlated with greater worker engagement and higher well-being” for the entire workforce.
And things are starting to change. While the vast majority of Americans still don't have mandated sick time, paid parental leave, or pregnancy and nursing accommodations, over 11.5 million workers do now have access to paid sick days laws -- up from 1.57 million in 2013 and 59,000 in 2006 -- according to the nonprofit organization Family Values @ Work. New legislation helped 11 states and the District of Columbia improve their grades this year, the report says.
“We’re seeing so much increased attention, from the presidential election to Congress to progressive and conservative interest groups,” Shabo says. “Policy progress is helping build the drumbeat at the national level."