Work

Donating Paid Leave Time to Pregnant Co-Workers Isn’t a Trend. It’s a Travesty.

Women at a baby shower
Pregnant women shouldn’t also need to be gifted paid leave.
Thinkstock.

On Wednesday, Good Morning America praised an emerging workplace “trend”: Instead of co-workers collecting money to buy cakes and strollers for pregnant officemates, some are pooling their own vacation days to give new moms a chance at paid maternity leave.

As we’ve noted again and again, the U.S. is the only developed country that doesn’t guarantee paid, job-protected leave for new mothers and fathers, so it’s commendable that employees are using their own benefits to scrape together paid time off for one another. But this is not a “feel-good story,” as Good Morning America portrayed it. It’s a sign of how unjust life is for new parents in the United States.

About 60 percent of U.S. workers are eligible for unpaid leave under the federal Family and Medical Leave Act, but this is an unaffordable option for most families. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, only about 15 percent of U.S. workers have access to paid parental leave either through their home states or employers. As a result, up to 1 out of 4 new mothers goes back to work within two weeks, which goes against nearly every recommendation from the medical community for both maternal and infant health outcomes.

And the trend isn’t just that workers are banding together in the face of inaction by employers and the government. Employers—including governments—are implementing the option to pool in place of real policies in which they’d be responsible for providing employees with paid leave. As Good Morning America notes, Nebraska created a maternity leave donation program in January for state employees, where workers can donate their own sick days into a pot for new mothers to take to extend their leave when their own sick time runs out. Even if workers would like to donate time, many workplaces give them nothing to pool from: Almost a third of U.S. workers have no paid sick days, let alone paid vacation days. Those who do face potentially devastating consequences if they’ve donated their own supply of sick days only to need them later. In addition, research shows women need and use more of these days than men do, usually because they are responsible for taking care of ailing family members or children. So the pooling approach could even further exacerbate gender inequalities at work.

And ultimately new parents need paid leave not measured in days or weeks but in months. Experts who reviewed thousands of medical studies agree that achieving optimal health outcomes for mothers and babies requires a minimum of six months of paid leave. And a review of hundreds of studies on leave conducted by my colleagues at Better Life Lab at New America showed that new fathers should have six months of additional leave, with at least some portion taken after the mother is back at work, to promote equal co-parenting. Leave-pooling can’t come close to providing what most parents actually need.

The movement for government-mandated paid leave is gaining steam, as more states pass paid-leave solutions, and even Republicans look to enter the fray.  But even these proposals aren’t sufficient. The Democrats’ own paid-leave plan, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand’s FAMILY Act, would guarantee only 12 weeks of paid leave for new parents, half the amount experts recommend, and it would keep the U.S. near the bottom of international leave offerings.

Leave-pooling is a trend we should know about—one that should make us feel angry and hungry for change. But the bit of warmth you might feel when you learn how many people are willing to donate their own modest paid time off to their fellow co-workers shows that we all recognize just how woefully insufficient U.S. policy is. Pooling your sick days to give a pregnant co-worker a few weeks of leave that won’t drive her into poverty is a generous gift, but isn’t a solution—it’s a travesty.