The Push for Paid Maternity Leave
Pennsylvania's Bad Grades are a Problem for Families
A November 2014 report from Chatham University examined Pennsylvania’s family medical leave laws. The findings were not good with the Keystone State earning a “D” rating and being ranked as “one of the 10 worst states in the country for pregnancy discrimination” from the National Partnership for Women and Families.
There is currently no potential legislation sitting in the State House regarding the federal Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA) or paid maternity leave in Pennsylvania, but there are three bills stuck in committee regarding pregnancy discrimination. A quick jump across state lines paints another picture. Many other Mid-Atlantic states have “leave laws” in one capacity or another. For instance, New Jersey has updated their laws to include a broader definition of the word “family.” New Jersey and New York also expanded their “leave laws” to cover temporary disabilities. Maryland has even provided leave to adoptive parents, allowing the family time to bond with their new addition.
With Pennsylvania’s laws leaving much to be desired, groups like the Women’s Law Project in Philadelphia are working to get things moving. Amal Bass, staff attorney for the Women’s Law Project for nearly 10 years, says, “As a state, we are very far behind other states.”
The organization is working around-the-clock to fight instances of pregnancy discrimination. Bass calls discrimination against pregnant women a “fairly common problems” in Pennsylvania. The problem can occur when pregnant workers ask for workplace accommodations, including access to chairs, a place to express breast milk or even regular access to water.
Since the option for paid leave doesn’t exist for many women, most return to work as quickly as possible after exhausting all of their unpaid leave time. As a result, less women breast-feed their children and, consequently, less children reap the benefits of breast milk.
According to the National Partnership for Women and Families, the percentage of pregnant and new moms who were in the labor force is just over 65 percent. That was in 2013 – adjusting for 2016 would make it 75 percent.
In regard to pregnancy discrimination, the State Senate is working on it. Senate Bill 40 (SB 40) was introduced in late January of 2015 by former Senator Matthew Smith, 37th District. Senator Rob Teplitz, a Democrat representing the 15th District, is a co-sponsor of the bill.
SB 40, the Pennsylvania Pregnant Workers Fairness Act, ensures “reasonable accommodations for workers whose ability to perform the functions of a job are limited by pregnancy, childbirth or a related medical condition...”
SB 40 and its companion bill, SB 41, are still sitting in committee after nearly a year and a half.
“Here we are a year and a half later, and it’s still sitting in the Labor and Industry committee without movement,” states Teplitz. “That’s not uncommon. Most bills never make it out of committee.”
In addition to this bill, House Bill 1176 reads the same and was introduced by Representative Sheryl Delozier, a Republican representing the 88th District. She states that, in this session alone, upwards of 2,500 bills have been introduced.
“The reasons that bills don’t move doesn’t always have to do with the merit of the bill. I think, a lot of times, it’s just volume,” Teplitz adds.
The nine-month budget impasse has also slowed progress in the legislature and could explain the delay in the movement of the bill.
As far as repercussions to businesses from the bill, Teplitz says, “I think the bill is trying to find that balance.”
Teplitz has said that if the bill has not passed by November 30 (when it dies), then he would reintroduce a similar bill next session, assuming he is re-elected.
With so much of the labor force being alienated, Pennsylvania’s economy is feeling the pressure. According to the Pennsylvania Department of Aging, 1.3 million Pennsylvanians are “informal caregivers.” That equates to 1.4 billion hours of unpaid time caring for elderly parents and grandparents as well as sick children and infants.
Federal laws created in 1993 established FMLA to provide up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave per annual for health conditions, maternity leave and military service. However, the federal laws were deliberately short-sighted, leaving more sweeping legislation up to the states and commonwealths.
Bass believes a state law granting paid leave will “help women and families to be economically secure.”
Dickinson College Assistant Professor of Political Science Kathleen Marchetti says the Commonwealth has “formidable conditions to overcome.”
Marchetti voices concern for women in the workforce, many of which are still overwhelmingly responsible for the care of children and loved ones. A lack of paid leave “does affect families and employment.”
Single mothers and career-driven women are being affected by the lack of legislation. Many mothers are forced to chose between their career path and their families.
“It can snowball in a number of ways,” says Marchetti.
Delozier mentions that many private employers in the state do offer paid leave, often accrued vacation time. “I have two children – I was paid because I saved my time,” she states.
Currently, private employers can make the choice to offer paid leave (parental or otherwise) themselves, with little or no input from the employees. Now municipalities are making their own rules.
The Philadelphia Fair Practices Ordinance (2009) mandates that employers provide up to eight weeks of unpaid leave per year to victims of domestic abuse, sexual assault or stalking. The amount of leave an employee receives is based on the size of the employing business and extends to certain members of an employee’s family as well.
This isn’t all, the City of Brotherly Love has also adopted ordinances for paid sick days and the amended Philadelphia Fair Practices Ordinance (2013) that requests employers provide “reasonable accommodations” to pregnant workers, similar to SB 40.
Bass describes the divide, “Workers in Harrisburg should not have less rights than those in Philadelphia.”
Teplitz says of Philadelphia’s ordinances, “It’s not uncommon what Philly has done, to pass their own ordinance due to impatience on the state to act. My preference as a matter of principle on these issues is for a uniform state. That’s just where my preference is...”
Marchetti says, “Philadelphia could be a good learning experience for municipalities or the state.”
Pennsylvania has, what is called in political-science vernacular, a “professionalized legislature.” In states with more leave laws and benefits, representatives and senators also work full-time positions elsewhere. This means many of those legislators are experiencing or seeing first-hand the hardships felt by those without leave.
“This may or may not be playing out in Pa., but it does play out in other areas,” says Marchetti.
“This type of legislation most often comes from women representatives,” says Marchetti. Pennsylvania currently has no female representatives in the U.S. Congress or the U.S. Senate and just nine women serving in the State Senate.
A number of other political factors could be at play besides underrepresentation according to Marchetti. Chairs of committees can block legislation, and there is bipartisan and gender alliance that could also doom leave legislation.
Being a rural state could also be hindering Pennsylvania’s progress.
Paid-leave laws don’t seem to be making their way to Pennsylvania anytime soon despite neighboring states’ successes. Whatever the cause for the lack of legislation, it’s proof that Pennsylvania is going to require a push from a coordinated social effort that recognizes the importance of leave laws in the Commonwealth.
Child-free by Choice
The majority of people can’t resist the allure of having children. For some, it’s a matter of passing down their own wisdom, and for others who came from a large family, the idea of an empty nest seems foreign.
Today, many women are overwhelmingly choosing to hold off on motherhood until their 30s or are choosing not to have children at all. In the 2014 U.S. Census Bureau report, 47.6 percent of women between the ages of 15 and 44 never had children. The movement is called, “Childless By Choice,” and it’s catching fire.
Growing up in rural Pennsylvania, Janice Newcomer knew from an early age that having children was not for her.
She says, “It was assumed that girls would grow up, get married and have kids. I just really didn’t fit into that.”
In contrast, Newcomer’s friend, Susan Sleighter, 55, says she never felt pressure from her family or otherwise, to have kids.
“I never got questioned about kids, never.”
Sleighter believes that she was never questioned about having a family because she chose not to marry.
Newcomer is part of a small group of 10 women called the “Central Pa. Non-Moms,” a group where women over 40 who are child-free can feel at-home without being questioned about their choice.
“I was about 40 before people stopped asking or stopped trying to change my mind,” she states.
The idea for the “Non-Moms” group came when Newcomer realized that it was tough to relate to other women who were mothers and equally difficult for them to relate to her.
While Newcomer says the group is not always active, she plans for movie nights, garden tours and dinner cruises on the Pride of the Susquehanna for the ladies to enjoy in the future.
When Newcomer isn’t with the group, she is working as a mental-health and substance-abuse counselor in Harrisburg. She holds a master’s degree in counseling psychology from Loyola University in Maryland and enjoys taking care of the many animals, including three rescued llamas, on her farm in Adams County.
During the warmer months, Sleighter can be found kayaking, bike-riding and traveling abroad. She describes her life without children, but with nieces and nephews, “I get to have my cake and eat it, too.”
Offering her wisdom to the masses, Newcomer says, “I encourage women, especially young women, to really think about whether or not they want kids and make that decision based on what they want, not what society says.”
Similarly, Sleighter advises young women not to worry about what other people think of their choices.