Family-friendly policies? In the U.S., not so much
MarketWatch, January 11, 2011
By Ruth Mantell
WASHINGTON (MarketWatch) — Breastfeeding is on Washington’s, ahem, plate.
The House of Representatives is expected to consider a repeal of President Barack Obama’s far-reaching health-reform law, with Republicans decrying coverage mandates, among other items. But a repeal would also hit the nation’s tiniest citizens: babies.
A portion of the health-reform law mandates that certain employers provide “reasonable break time” for workers to pump breast milk until babies are one year old. Pumping is critical for workers who feed their babies breast milk because mothers need to regularly use their supply, or it dwindles. Read more about the pumping provision on the Labor Department website.
Given that Democrats have retained leadership of the Senate, the legislation is not expected to move forward after the upcoming symbolic vote in the Republican-led House. So babies across the U.S. can breathe, or gurgle, a sigh of relief. Still, the vote provides a reason to look at how friendly U.S. policies are to babies, and families as a whole.
When it comes to breastfeeding, the health-reform law is expected to particularly help lower income and hourly workers, according to the Washington-based Institute for Women’s Policy Research. IWPR estimates that, due to health-care reform, an additional 165,000 mothers every year will breastfeed their babies until the children are at least six months old.
Increased breastfeeding could lead to hundreds of fewer infant deaths every year, and reduced health-care spending. The IWPR research estimates that the rate of breastfeeding at six months will rise several percentage points to about 48%, compared with the government’s target of about 61%. The government estimates that about 44% of infants born in 2006 were breastfed at six months of age. Read about the government’s goals for breastfeeding.
Firms benefit from workplace lactation programs, with cost savings of $3 for each dollar invested in breastfeeding support, according to the Washington-based Corporate Voices for Working Families. Corporate Voices said such programs increase employee productivity, engagement, and retention, and reduce health-care costs.
What’s the big deal about breast milk anyway? This “liquid gold,” as it was referred to in my household when my little one still nursed, contains nutrients and antibodies that protect babies.
Healthier babies mean lower medical bills, and also fewer missed work days for mothers and fathers. Formula and feeding supplies can cost more than $1,500 per year, according to the Department of Health and Human Services, though breastfeeding isn’t free either (think accoutrements such as nursing bras and shirts, breast pumps and parts). Read more from HHS about the importance of breastfeeding.
However, as I have written before, breastfeeding can be tough, and despite its health benefits for babies and mothers, it’s not going to work for all families. For some women, it’s painful, while others may not produce enough milk. And no matter how loudly supporters proclaim breastfeeding’s superiority, some mothers simply may find it unappealing if it doesn’t fit their lifestyle (young babies require frequent feeding, making it tough for mothers to juggle other responsibilities). Read about breastfeeding’s costs here. And read more here.
Also, some workers may find pumping on the job too costly in both time and money. The health-care law does not require firms to pay mothers who take pumping breaks.
Other family-friendly measures
Other than the issue of breastfeeding, when it comes to family friendliness U.S. policies, and businesses, have a way to go.
There is no federally mandated paid maternity leave in this country. In that respect, we are behind other major economies, such as the United Kingdom and Canada, where there are varying levels of entitlement, according to a report from the American Human Development Project. However, some U.S. workers are eligible for unpaid leave. Read more about unpaid leave on the Labor Department site.
With these tough economic times highlighting the importance, and in some cases the necessity, of two working parents, policies in the U.S. seem particularly out of date.
“Some U.S. private companies offer family-friendly benefits, and a handful of states have enacted laws that require paid family leave and other benefits,” according to the American Human Development Project report. “But many countries that have experienced a similar large-scale entry of women into the workforce have adapted to this new normal through policies and programs that help families better balance home and work responsibilities.”
On Tuesday afternoon, researchers from the University of California, Los Angeles, City University of New York, and the Center for Economic and Policy Research, a Washington think tank, will present findings from a study of California’s paid family leave program, which was enacted several years ago.
“The report will reveal that business fears that [the paid family leave program] would be a costly ‘job-killer’ have not materialized” since implementation, “and that workers who have used the program have seen significant economic, social and health benefits,” according to a note about the study.
California’s program covers people “who take time off of work to care for a seriously ill child, spouse, parent, or registered domestic partner, or to bond with a new child,” providing up to six weeks of benefits ranging from about $50 to $1,000 per week, according to the state’s Employment Development Department. Read more about the program on the EDD site.
Separately, researchers have noted that many workers don’t have access to paid sick days. In 2010, about 44 million private-sector employees did not have paid sick days, according to IWPR.
“The fewer the number of workers who are able to stay home when sick, the more likely it is that diseases will spread, increasing health-care costs and causing needless economic losses,” said Robert Drago, research director at IWPR, in a statement.IWPR noted that workers in food service and preparation have the lowest access rate. Workers, especially those with lower wages, may feel compelled to show up to work when ill for fear of losing income or their job. Read more about sick days.