Paid Family Leave Is a Matter of Life and Death

Giving parents the time and financial security to care for their infants at home isn’t a job perk. It’s necessary for ending our maternal and infant health crisis.

By Stacey D. Stewart

When Leigh Townsend’s second child was born six weeks early, weighing just four pounds, she quickly used up the six weeks of paid leave her employer offered, plus an additional four weeks of unpaid leave. When she went back to work, her 9-week-old son weighed only 6 pounds. 

Today, Townsend works in a Louisiana neonatal intensive care unit. Far too often, she sees new mothers have to return to work just 5 days after giving birth, and, in the worst situations, to a premature, or sick baby. 

A mother’s health is also at stake as they are dealing with intense mental stress and often recovering from life-threatening birth complications, but are too worried their leave could run out, putting them in long-term financial strain. It’s a no-win situation. 

In the popular imagination, “family leave” entails mom and dad happily, if exhaustedly, adjusting to life with their new baby, figuring out naps, colic, and breastfeeding. It’s an idyllic scene of first-world convenience,  but the reality is far too few workers have access to paid family leave, so it remains no more than a job perk for the privileged. Also, the COVID-19 pandemic has created an impossible situation for working parents, forcing them to juggle their job responsibilities alongside childcare and homeschooling while keeping their families safe.

The United States faces an urgent maternal and infant health crisis, which we could help address by ensuring every American worker has access to paid family leave benefits through a national program. Researchers have found that paid leave during a baby’s first year actually improves health outcomes for moms and babies. It’s a solution we sorely need to reverse the tide of an epidemic that takes the lives of about 700 women and more than 22,000 babies each year. 


The first year of a baby’s life is a risky time for new mothers. A full third of women whose deaths are classified this way pass away one week to a year after giving birth.  And throughout the first year of a baby’s life, many mothers struggle with postpartum depression — as many as 1 in 9, according to the CDC.  

Though much more research is needed on the impact of paid family leave on mothers’ health, we do have evidence that not having enough leave from work increases the risk for depression and negatively affects health among new moms. Early evidence also suggests California’s paid family leave program, which provides partial pay for up to 8 weeks, positively affected moms’ mental health and parents’ feelings of being able to cope day to day.


Despite the well-established benefits of paid parental leave, the United States is the only developed country that doesn’t offer paid leave to all new moms. While the federal Family and Medical Leave Act guarantees 12 weeks of job-protected unpaid leave for some groups of workers, about 4 in 10 U.S. employees are not covered. In fact, only 17% civilian workers have access to paid family leave. 

And there are deep inequities in access to leave. Some studies have found that the highest paid workers are two to three times more likely than the lowest paid to have access to paid parental or family leave.

Ensuring that women at all income levels benefit from paid family leave, could alleviate economic strain and poverty, which have impacts on maternal and infant health. California’s paid leave program has been found to reduce mothers’ risk of poverty following a birth, particularly among disadvantaged mothers. And a study conducted by the Institute for Women’s Policy Research found statewide paid family leave reduces the number of women who drop out of the workforce over time. 

We can and we must do better. 

The Families First Coronavirus Response Act, passed by Congress earlier this year, provides some protections for American workers during the pandemic. It requires certain small and mid-sized businesses to offer up to 12 weeks of paid sick and family leave to employees who contract the virus or are awaiting test results, are caring for ill family members suffering from COVID-19 or have a child whose school or day care has closed because of the virus.  

While Congress took an important step in the Families First bill, only employers with fewer than 500 employees are covered while employers with fewer than 50 employees can receive a waiver through the Department of Labor.  At the same time, health care workers and first responders have been unfairly excluded from the benefits altogether.  Leigh, if she needed to stay home to care for her child, would not qualify under current law. 

As Congress debates another COVID relief package, and as we get closer to the end of the year, lawmakers must close the gaps in the Families First bill and provide all Americans – no matter where they work or what they do –  the security of knowing they won’t have to choose between a paycheck and caring for their family during a time of national crisis. 

If this pandemic has taught us anything, it’s how fragile our country’s support system is for our youngest and most vulnerable citizens.  As we look beyond this pandemic and consider lessons learned, policymakers must enact a permanent, paid family leave program. 

Families in every state should be free from making the agonizing decision that Leigh was forced to make: financial security or a healthy first year for herself and new baby. Guaranteed family leave for all who need it would eliminate that false choice and make possible the real idyll: every mom and baby safe and well at home, in the first weeks of a new life and far beyond.

Help families like Leigh’s by urging your elected official to close the gaps and extend the Families First paid sick and family leave program and enact a permanent, nationwide paid family leave program in our country. Visit the March of Dimes Action Center, and make your voice heard today!

Stacey D. Stewart is president and CEO of March of Dimes, which promotes the health of mothers and babies through research, education and advocacy.