In June, President Obama held the White House Summit on Working Families to assert the administration's commitment to family-friendly workplace policies. At the same time, the National Partnership for Women and Families issued the report Expecting Better: A State-By-State Analysis of Laws That Help New Parents.
The report, overall, is discouraging. With states rated on an A to F scale, only California, the nation's most populous state, merited a score in the A range. As NPWF president Debra L. Ness recently wrote for Fast Company, California is not perfect, but it is setting a model to follow. It was the first state to enact a paid family leave insurance program in 2002 that provides partial pay, and extends to domestic partners and caring for family members other than children. Research on the effects of the law demonstrate that that the state workforce, businesses, and economy are more stable as a result of these policies.
Now for the appalling news: 17 states received zero points and an F grade. Meaning they have absolutely zero provisions beyond the federal Pregnancy Discrimination Act, which essentially means a woman can't be outright fired just for getting pregnant, or the limited-eligibility 1993 Family and Medical Leave Act. The FMLA protects the jobs of workers who take leave for up to three months—but only at companies with 50 or more employees, for workers who have a year of tenure. The law includes no provisions for pay, let alone accommodations for nursing mothers or many other family issues.
Below California, 11 states earned grades in the B range, including New York, which ranked 12th with a B-. New York earned this better-than-average score primarily for its same-sex partner recognition for FMLA, its required accommodations for nursing mothers, and its Temporary Disability Insurance (TDI) that provides very modest assistance—now $170 per week, usually for six to eight weeks—for temporarily disabled workers, including from pregnancy and childbirth. Women receiving only that weekly assistance would come in well below the federal poverty level, and in nearly all cases it comes nowhere close to replacing lost wages from unpaid leave.
Even in a higher-ranking state like New York, working families are still vulnerable to employers who may not understand or value the long-term benefits of providing additional assistance to support or retain employees who happen to have children. I know, because I became a first-time mother while working in New York.
I got pregnant with my first child in 2011 within a week of starting a new job, because that's how these things work out sometimes. The privately owned, New York media company I worked for had something of a boys' club reputation, but the staff had several fathers of young children, and my direct supervisors were kind, reasonable people. I knew that I'd have challenges scheduling doctor appointments around the demands of editing a large news site, but I was committed to my job and didn't panic. Despite the absence of any federal requirements for paid time off, I assumed an established, respected company would have a policy supporting at least some paid family leave.
And they did—six weeks, for employees who had worked at the company for a year or more. For which I, of course, would not qualify when I gave birth nine months after my hire date. I would, however, qualify for New York State's then-$167 per week in TDI for six weeks, or eight weeks if I had a cesarian section. The HR director also told me that while I did not qualify for job protection under the federal FMLA, which also only applies to year-plus employees, they would agree to hold my position for me until I returned. If I wanted to take up to three months unpaid, they would consider that, too.
Three months with no paycheck was not an option, nor was six weeks. I was fortunate enough to live in a double-income household, but my husband's nonprofit salary alone couldn't cover our monthly bills for even a short time. So we cut out almost all of our discretionary spending and started saving; we had just enough time to accumulate six weeks of my salary before my due date. We weren't even thinking at that point about the fact that with my company's high-deductible, 10% coinsurance health plan, we'd have to pay thousands more out of pocket just to have the baby.
And then at 32 weeks, for no discernible reason, I went into pre-term labor. The doctors were able to stop it after three days in the hospital, but it meant moderate bed rest for the remaining eight weeks of my pregnancy to prevent a recurrence—meaning not total immobility, but certainly no daily commutes. Well, I thought, at least I work entirely online and therefore can work from home until I deliver.
That's when the company told me they unfortunately had no work-from-home policy and made no case-by-case exceptions, regardless of how little it would affect my ability to do my job, and that I would have to go on TDI until I delivered. That would mean up to 14 weeks with no paycheck other than $167 per week from the state.
That's when I panicked.
A few days later, they suddenly changed their minds and decided to let me work from home. I knew my boss had been arguing on my behalf, because I could do the work just fine, and finding a fill-in for an additional eight weeks would be difficult and much less efficient. I figured she had succeeded and rational heads had prevailed.
Then I found out why her argument had finally worked: she had discovered that HR had recently ordered a male employee to work from home due to an illness that was uncomfortable but not work restricting. In other words, they did make exceptions, but had decided not to apply them to pregnancy until they realized the potential for a discrimination complaint. When they called me to deliver the good news, they were very clear that I was not to tell anyone so as not to set a further precedent—as if my team of coworkers would not be fully aware that I was working from home.
Of course, my situation could have been much worse. I could have been a single parent with zero additional sources of income; I could have had an existing child or children that made saving for unpaid leave impossible. The company could have stuck to the letter of FMLA and fired me outright if I took leave because I had been there for nine months instead of 12. As it was, I was laid off four months after I returned from maternity leave, which I only found less suspicious because it was part of a large company reorganization and bloodletting, and those affected fit a range of family profiles.
Which is all to say that for every story like mine that results in stress and debt (I paid off the medical bills when my daughter was 14 months old, and only because I found a new job before my severance ran out), there are likely many others that lead to extended unemployment, bankruptcy, and additional taxpayer expense when families have to rely on other public safety nets. I gave birth in a state that received the relatively high grade of B- on the recent report, not in one of the 17 states that earned an F, proving that even the best states have a long way to go.