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More US parents than ever have paid leave this Mother's Day - but most still don't

In the absence of a federal law, 13 states plus the District of Columbia have adopted paid family and medical leave laws.

NEW YORK — More working U.S. parents than ever are celebrating their first Mother’s Day with hard-fought access to paid time off to care for newborns. But the majority still must forego pay to care for new babies or other loved ones, even as efforts to expand paid parental and family leave gain traction.

Bipartisan groups in the U.S. Senate and House have revived efforts to expand paid family leave to more workers, with momentum building to introduce legislation this year. In the absence of a federal law, 13 states plus the District of Columbia have adopted paid family and medical leave laws, which entitle workers to paid time off to care for newborns or other loved ones who require care.

Still, just 27% of civilian workers in the U.S. get paid family leave, according to the latest data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Workers who can least afford to take unpaid time off are also the least likely to have access to paid leave: According to the BLS, just 14% percent of workers in the lowest 25% wage category get that benefit, compared to 48% of those in the top 10%.

For families without paid leave, babies “are going to day care when they are two weeks old. They do not even have immunizations. They’re not on regular feeding patterns. Moms are giving up breastfeeding far sooner than they would like to,” Elizabeth Gedmark, vice president at nonprofit advocacy organization A Better Balance, said during a recent virtual conference to advocate for federal paid family leave organized by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation.

The U.S. is one of just of seven countries — and the only industrialized one — that does not have a national paid maternity leave policy, according to the World Policy Analysis Center at the University of California, Los Angeles.

Caitlyn Householder has become an advocate for a universal paid family leave law in Pennsylvania since she was forced to quit her job as a floor supervisor of a clothing company five ago when she learned that she was pregnant shortly after being diagnosed with Non-Hodgkin’s B-Cell Lymphoma.

Householder, of Ellwood City, Pennsylvania, could hardly drive herself to work because of agonizing pain in her leg, and it quickly became apparent that her employer wouldn’t allow her to take enough time off for her medical needs.

“They showed their true colors," said Householder, who shared her story through the Children First, a organization campaigning for Pennsylvania's proposed law.

Householder’s husband, an oil rig worker, also gets no paid parental or family leave to care for her and their kids. Most of the time, Householder took her baby and stepdaughter with her to the radiation treatments. When her husband did take off work, such as when Householder couldn’t hold her baby for 24 hours after radiation, it meant foregoing hundreds of dollars in income. The family fell behind on mortgage payments during the most difficult months.

Pennsylvania's House and Senate are considering legislation that would provide up to 20 weeks of paid family leave through a payroll tax. The proposed measure has bipartisan sponsorship but some Republicans have vocally opposed it because of the cost to taxpayers.

Disagreements over how to fund family leave programs have been an obstacle in other states, and have long thwarted efforts to pass a federal law. Democrats generally favor funding such programs through payroll taxes, while many Republicans prefer tax incentives to encourage, but not require, employers to offer paid leave.

In January, a House bipartisan group led by Rep. Chrissy Houlahan, a Pennsylvania Democrat, and Rep. Stephanie Bice, an Oklahoma Republican, released a four-part framework to extend paid family leave to more workers, including funding for state programs or stronger tax breaks for small businesses to do so.

In a statement, Bice said the group is "excited about the momentum and will continue working together to craft legislative text which can get across the finish line.” In an interview with The Associated Press, Houlahan said she was optimistic that legislation could be introduced this year. While any measure would fall short of a federal paid leave law, Houlahan said it reflects a yearlong effort to find common ground for policies that would extend the benefit to as many workers as possible.

Colorado's benefits kicked in on Jan. 1, four years after the state's paid family and medical leave program passed by ballot measure following a failed effort to move a bill through the legislature. The law gives most Colorado workers the right to take up to 12 week of paid leave to bond with a new baby and other family needs.

The new benefits came too late for Carrie Martin-Haley's family. Neither Martin-Haley, a small business owner in Denver who gave birth to her son in September 2023, nor her husband had any paid time off, so Martin-Haley had to put aside her dreams of opening a brick-and-mortar storefront for her business, Summit Sustainable Goods.

"That’s been hard to sit with,” said Martin-Haley, who shared her story through Small Business Majority, an advocacy group that is campaigning for federal paid family leave. “With the lack of sleep and everything else that comes along with new parenthood, and all of the uncertainties, finances should be the last thing on the totem pole.”

Women's participation in the U.S. labor force has reached historic highs, but changes such as paid parental leave often come after long-fought campaigns by mothers.

Keenan Manzo of Dallas, a mother of three who has worked as a Southwest flight attendant for 18 years, said she launched a Facebook page for mothers at the company after having her first child 11 years ago to galvanize support for paid leave and other policies. She said paid leave often took a backseat to other priorities such as higher pay, but support grew as women shared stories of returning to work too early and struggling to pump during flights, sometimes as impatient passengers knocked on the bathroom stalls.

Southwest flight attendants finally won paid parental leave — up to eight weeks for birthing parents and two weeks for non-birth parents — in a contract ratified in April by the Transport Workers Union. TWU International President John Samuelsen called the benefit a first for an industry with a long history of sexism against flight attendants, who are mostly women.

“I fought so hard. I’m done having babies, but I still get emotional just thinking about the moms that are coming after me that have this reprieve,” Manzo said.

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