After giving birth to her second child, Tonya went back to work as a shift leader at a chain store. Her daughter was just three days old. “I hated it because I didn’t have a choice,” she said. “Financially, I had to go back to work. So I missed that bonding time.”
Her husband was unemployed at the time, so he stayed home with their colicky daughter. Tonya was exhausted physically—she had preeclampsia during the pregnancy, which took an even greater toll on her body—but pressed on, knowing that her children needed her to provide for them.
Two weeks after giving birth, Tonya worked three shifts in a row—clocking in a total of 24 hours, with just one hour break. Her manager was out of town and two other employees called off, so corporate asked if she’d mind staying. She stayed so that they didn’t have to shut down the store. She was a loyal employee and proud of the years she had worked there. After the shifts, she went home to her two children and cooked dinner.
Traditionally and in many cultures around the world today, the first 40 days postpartum are kept as a time of rest and recuperation. Take the Amish practice of having family or hired help stay for the postpartum period, or the Hispanic tradition of “cuarentena” (literally, “quarantine”), or the Chinese tradition of “sitting the month.” While many of the specific traditions associated with these periods are debated by the medical community and some are even dangerous, the idea that a woman needs at least six weeks to rest and recover from childbirth, and to establish breastfeeding and bonding is supported by the medical community.
In California, where paid family leave has been available since 2004 through a state program that offers up to six weeks of partial wage replacement, median weeks of breastfeeding doubled for new mothers who used the program. That’s important because breastfeeding has health benefits for mother and baby alike, including reducing the risk of postpartum depression.
But maternity leave is a luxury that many working American mothers cannot afford as Tonya and her working-class peers pointed out in a recent focus group we conducted. Though legally Tonya had a right to 12 weeks of unpaid leave, taking that time off would have been financial suicide for a family living paycheck to paycheck. In part, because of stories like Tonya’s, all of the participants (mostly Trump supporters) said they wanted the Trump administration and Congress to consider passing some form of paid parental leave.
College-educated Americans are more likely to have access to paid leave, even though they are the ones who are most likely able to afford unpaid leave. A friend of mine who works in information technology for a Fortune 500 company was able to take one month of paid paternity leave after his wife gave birth last spring. His wife is a lawyer, but she does not currently practice because she knew that she wanted to have several children and worried that taking maternity leave would be frowned upon by the firm. Even among college-educated Americans with access to paid parental leave, balancing work and a growing family is no walk in the park, as the abundant literature on work-family reconciliation attests.
But while we tend to give a lot of time and attention to the struggles of the professional and managerial classes, “[t]he work-family problems of the majority of female workers, who labor at low wages in gender-stereotyped clerical, sales, and service ‘pink collar’ jobs, remain relatively invisible both in scholarly literature and in public discourse,” as Dr. Ruth Milkman and Dr. Eileen Appelbaum note in their book, Unfinished Business: Paid Family Leave in California and the Future of U.S. Work-Family Policy.
While some of the media critiqued Donald Trump’s plan to offer six weeks of paid maternity leave as confirming “his sexist, antiquated view,” Tonya doesn’t care too much about feminist ideology. She says that six weeks of paid maternity leave would be her ideal arrangement. Her husband doesn’t help much with babies anyway, and she says she is fine with that. (However, some parents in our focus group said they would like to see 12 weeks of paid leave for both parents.)
What Tonya is not fine with is the fact that a lack of paid parental leave has meant that she and her husband rarely get to see each other in those precious after-birth moments. After the births of their four children, they found themselves working opposite shifts to get by, or risk getting evicted. That’s what happened after the birth of their fourth daughter. Because their children’s daycare would not accept her until she was six weeks old, Tonya took six weeks of unpaid leave. But her husband’s seasonal job at a hardware store was not enough. The couple spent several stressful months trying to catch up on bills, even starting a “Go Fund Me” page for their month’s rent.
She is also indignant that a country as affluent as ours would be the only industrialized country in the world without some form of paid parental leave. During her high-risk pregnancies, she had doctor’s orders to be on bedrest. But she hid those orders from her employers in order to keep working two jobs—a day job as a maid and an evening shift standing outside in a Statue of Liberty costume as a walking advertisement for Liberty Tax. It’s a problem that some expectant mothers in America have to choose between following doctor’s orders and having enough money for rent.
But is paid parental leave practical? Wouldn’t it hurt businesses? According to an evaluation done by Milkman and Appelbaum, the paid family leave program in California has been “a non-event” for businesses. The program is structured as an insurance scheme and funded by an employee-paid payroll tax (which in 2012 was 1.0 percent on the first $95,585 in wages). Furthermore, Milkman and Appelbaum report that “employers reported that [paid family leave] had no noticeable effect or a positive effect on productivity (89%), on profitability (91%), on turnover (93%), or morale (99%).”
Participants in the focus group we conducted said they both wanted to see some version of paid parental leave and lower payroll taxes. Might they be willing to support a very modest portion of their payroll taxes funding six or even 12 weeks of paid leave? Maybe, or maybe not. What is clear is that the working-class parents we spoke to expect basic respect from employers in exchange for their hard work and would like to keep more of their own hard-earned money in each paycheck. And given their preferences, lawmakers might consider other funding streams.
But for a Trump administration looking to start out on a winning, bipartisan note, paid parental leave could be a great place to begin. A 2016 poll found that 72 percent of Americans support paid family leave. Moreover, similar to the optics of Trump’s negotiations with Carrier, working-class voters like Tonya would probably take the passage of paid parental leave as a tangible sign that political leaders are serious about addressing the challenges of hardworking families living paycheck to paycheck.
In our focus group, a warehouse team leader, who makes $12 an hour and could afford only one week of leave (using his vacation) after his wife’s Caesarean delivery, put it this way: “I really, really, really, really want to see more compromise in the world of government—because that’s what made the Founding Fathers famous.”
For a White House and lawmakers interested in accepting that Trump supporter’s challenge, paid parental leave could be key.