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Progress is due

Ohio is likely to adopt a new maternity leave policy, but the U.S. remains behind much of the world.

August 18, 2007

Ohio is poised to become the 19th state to guarantee maternity leave for pregnant women. Californians, who enjoy some of the most enlightened family leave policies in the nation, may take such a development for granted, but the Buckeye State is adding momentum to a critical healthcare movement.

Maternity (and, in some states, paternity) leave laws began to proliferate after passage of the federal Family and Medical Leave Act in 1993. The act requires employers with 50 or more employees to grant them up to three months of unpaid leave to care for newborn or newly adopted children, a relative's health or their own. Soon after it was implemented, research, policy and advocacy groups also proliferated, such as the online grass-roots group MomsRising, which is aligned with organizations as varied as Dads & Daughters and the AFL-CIO. As the number of women working outside the home continues to increase, so does the number of women who work while pregnant. Yet most employers do not provide paid maternity leave -- or, in some cases, any maternity leave -- so families under pressure are seeking relief from the states.

The policies vary: California's guarantees women who work for businesses with at least five employees up to four months of unpaid leave, and they may collect disability payments. Ohio's new policy would accord up to three months of unpaid leave for pregnancy, childbirth and related medical conditions as substantiated by a woman's doctor. As written -- it may be amended -- it would apply to businesses with at least four employees. We support such family leave policies, while acknowledging the burden they can place on small businesses.

Ohio's existing policy, requiring employers to give "a reasonable amount" of leave, resulted in 30 years of confusion. The state's Civil Rights Commission, which crafted the new policy, says that even some businesses are relieved to have clarity. The majority of the business community, of course, prophesies disaster: Bankruptcy by babies! This is the same prediction that accompanied the Family Medical Leave Act. But none of the 18 states with family leave laws have seen their economies founder. Ohio will be just fine.

In June, Sen. Christopher J. Dodd (D-Conn.), who wrote the federal act, and Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) introduced legislation building on that landmark policy. It would provide up to eight weeks of paid leave, funded by employers, employees and the federal government, and its passage would nudge the United States into the 21st century. The rest of the world provides far more paid maternity leave -- Canada, 14 months; Sweden, 16 months. In a recent Harvard University study of the maternity leave policies of 173 countries, the U.S. ranked at the bottom with some of the world's poorest: Swaziland, Liberia and Papua New Guinea. Still, even incremental progress must be encouraged, so congratulations, Ohio, and welcome to the club.

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