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Guest Opinion

Pennsylvania needs paid family leave


Maria was working as a preschool teacher in Delaware County earning $10 an hour when she was pregnant with her third child. While her employer was supportive of her pregnancy, she did not have access to paid family leave. At the time, her other children were 8 and 4 years old, and she was her family’s primary provider. Maria credits her ability to make ends meet during her immediate postpartum period to having received her tax return shortly after her baby was born.

Without paid family leave, Maria was without income and subsisting on finite resources. She focused on paying her rent and feeding her family while putting off other financial responsibilities. The financial stress impacted Maria’s health, worsening her postpartum depression.

Looking back, Maria wonders how that stress impacted her ability to bond with her new baby.

Now, an Advocate at Maternity Care Coalition working with families, Maria says her story isn’t unique. Many families across Pennsylvania don’t have access to paid family leave and have similar stories.

The United States has the highest maternal mortality rate among high-income countries and is the only high-income country in the world without a national paid leave program.

Pregnancy-associated deaths increased by 21% from 2016 to 2021 in Pennsylvania. Unlike New York, New Jersey, Delaware, and Maryland, Pennsylvania has yet to establish a universal paid leave program. To improve birth outcomes, support family economic stability, and keep mothers connected to the workforce, Pennsylvania needs paid leave.

Access to paid leave is a powerful maternal child health intervention. A growing body of research shows paid leave policies can lead to healthier mothers and healthier babies. Perinatal depression is the leading complication of childbirth, affecting up to one-in-seven women. One study found a 27.6% decrease in postpartum psychological distress when new mothers had access to paid leave. Access to paid leave for Black mothers is associated with significantly fewer babies born at low birth weight and pre-term births which are leading causes of infant mortality.

A statewide paid leave program would improve infant and maternal health outcomes.

The birth of a child is one of the most significant financial experiences in a lifetime. While Maria credits her tax return with keeping her family afloat after the birth of her baby, most babies aren’t born during tax season. More than half of Americans would need to take on debt to cover a surprise $400 expense, so why do we continue to believe new parents can afford to go unpaid after the birth of their baby?

The lack of paid leave can drive families into poverty and worsen its impacts for families already experiencing poverty, which can negatively impact early childhood development. Many families end up relying on public benefits after the birth of a baby, but public benefits can’t and shouldn’t replace income. A paid leave program in Pennsylvania could reduce families’ reliance on public assistance programs and set families up for economic stability during this critical time.

Access to paid leave helps get new mothers back to work. Research shows when women have access to paid leave, they are more likely to re-enter the workforce within one year of the birth of their baby.

Establishing a paid leave program in Pennsylvania helps keep families financially secure and keeps mothers connected to the workforce.

When Maria thinks about how a paid family leave program would impact the families she works with today, she thinks about the freedom parents would have to bond with their babies without the stress of wondering if they are going to receive a utility shut-off notice. She thinks about how new mothers would have time to heal before heading back to work. Importantly, Maria says universal paid leave would lower the risk of families going into crisis after the birth of their baby. The evidence is clear — paid leave is good for moms, babies and families. Pennsylvania needs paid family leave.

Maria Martinez and Sara Jann Heinze are Healthy Families America Advocate and senior director of Policy & Advocacy, respectively, at Maternity Care Coalition. The Philadelphia-based MCC is a coalition of activists and care providers that serves clients in Pennsylvania and Delaware, including families in Bucks County.

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