When I gave birth to my son during my surgical training, I was concerned about being able to breastfeed successfully once I returned to work. Fortunately, due to the support of my program director and departmental chairwoman, I was afforded time to express breastmilk between operating-room cases and during surgery clinics. However, this level of support is unique in any workplace. Most women are forced to return to work far earlier than the time at which breastfeeding is well established. Though breastfeeding and expressing breastmilk at work is protected by law, the reality is that many women feel pressured not to take time to pump for fear of being “unproductive,” and they lack resources to address challenges that may arise once they are separated from their infants.
Having enough time to establish a breastfeeding relationship prior to returning to work represents one of a multitude of reasons why paid family medical leave is an issue central to the health of New Mexican families. It’s why I was glad to see Sen. Martin Heinrich, D-N.M., recently signed on to co-sponsor the FAMILY Act. February marked the 25th anniversary of when Congress passed the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA), a bill that was meant to be the first step toward greater financial stability for millions of American families. It gave many women job protection – but no pay – to take leave for a serious illness or to care for a new child or a sick or aging family member. At this point, Americans have used FMLA over 200 million times.
Unfortunately, FMLA does not provide full protection for women and as a result, many struggle with taking the time they need for breastfeeding, recovery from the birth of a child, or even to care for a ill or elderly family member. Today, only 60 percent of employees are eligible to use FMLA. Many who are eligible for FMLA do not invoke the leave because they cannot afford to take unpaid time away from work. Overall, only 13 percent of working people have access to paid family leave through their employers.
Paid family and medical leave is necessary to protect Americans while allowing them to meet dual responsibilities at home and in the workplace. Leave may be necessary for pregnancy complications, giving birth, caring for aging parents, or caring for a sick spouse. Lack of paid, job-protected leave is why one in four new mothers returns to work within 10 days of having a baby; this in turn contributes to very poor breastfeeding rates that are far below goals set by the World Health Organization and Healthy People 2020. It’s also why one in five retirees leaves the workforce earlier than planned because they need time to care for a spouse or loved one.
A robust and comprehensive paid family and medical leave program that covers all caregiving needs – not just new parents – is essential for protecting American families. Of the workers who are able to take unpaid leave through FMLA, 57 percent used it for their own illness; 19 percent to care for a seriously ill child, spouse, or parent; and 22 percent for a new child. It is important to note that more than half of people who take leave do so for self-care. As the population ages, more and more workers are challenged to care for themselves, their children and their aging parents.