In announcing that she would soon be a new mother, Marissa Mayer, the new chief executive officer of Yahoo! Inc., made one thing perfectly clear: She wouldn’t be taking maternity leave.
More precisely, Mayer said she would grab just a few weeks away from the office and would work at home the whole time. Many been-there-done-that moms scoffed. Just wait until she experiences the labor, the every-two-hours feedings and the moments of intense joy in between, she’ll change her mind.
This would not be a bad thing, if only to demonstrate to the rest of the U.S. the privilege that Mayer, as a Californian, enjoys. Her state is one of the few to guarantee paid maternity leave. Its program is a successful model for other states to follow, just as Mayer will be an example for women in her company, her industry and across the country.
The U.S. is the only major industrialized country not to guarantee paid parental leave nationwide. The federal Family and Medical Leave Act passed in 1993 allows workers as much as 12 weeks of leave without losing their jobs or benefits, but it doesn’t protect wages.
California was the first state to institute a program filling the gap. The state has long allowed women to receive temporary disability insurance payments in the four weeks leading up to their due dates and in the six weeks or more after giving birth. Since 2004, the state’s Paid Family Leave program has enabled both parents to take off an additional six weeks and be paid 55 percent of their usual wages, up to a cap of $1,011 a week in 2012.
The program is financed through a 1 percent state payroll tax. Almost all workers in the private sector are eligible for the leave. That’s in contrast to FMLA, which covers about half of American workers. (Mayer wouldn’t qualify, as FMLA protections start only when employees have been in their jobs for a year.)
Parents who have used California’s program say it works. In a 2010 survey of California employees and employers published by the liberal Center for Economic and Policy Research, more than 80 percent of workers in low-paying jobs said they received at least half of their usual pay while on leave — and 91 percent said the leave was good for their children.
It’s been good for employers, too. Despite initial fears about the price tag, 87 percent of companies in the same survey reported that they incurred no additional costs. Almost 9 percent reported saving money because turnover costs dropped, with workers in low-paying jobs more likely to return to their employers after taking paid leave. (The actual figure may be much higher because 60 percent of companies coordinated their private leave plans with the public program.)
There are other benefits: A study released in December 2011 by the National Bureau of Economic Research found that California mothers who took the paid time off immediately after giving birth worked up to two to three more hours each week between their child’s first and fourth birthdays.
Indeed, longer maternity leaves seem to benefit the health of mother and child. The number of weeks mothers breastfed their children doubled when they participated in the paid-leave program, the 2010 survey found. A national study in 2008 reported a drop in symptoms of depression among mothers when average leave time doubled from nine weeks to 18.
The only problem — and here’s where a high-profile figure like Mayer could be particularly helpful — is that too few prospective parents in California know about their paid-leave privileges. More than half of the eligible workers interviewed for the 2010 survey were unaware of the program. In addition, more than a third of the eligible workers who did know about it chose not to take part for fear they would upset their employer or hurt their career advancement.
Other states also seem unaware of California’s success. Only New Jersey has a similar program, which began paying benefits in 2009. It offers a more generous two-thirds wage replacement but with a lower cap. Hawaii, New York and Rhode Island offer some leave through temporary disability programs. Washington state passed a paid-leave program in 2007 that would provide a flat benefit of $250 a week to parents who had been working full time. But it hasn’t been financed and put in place.
President Barack Obama has sought a grant program to help states experiment with paid leave, but Congress didn’t approve his requests for $50 million in 2011 and $23 million in 2012. His 2013 budget seeks just $5 million.
That is a worthy investment to make in the millions of parents who lack the resources of someone as successful as Mayer, yet would nevertheless like to combine parenthood with a fruitful career.