John Oliver calls for universal maternity leave: How easy is that to do?

The United States is virtually alone in not offering paid maternity leave, comedian John Oliver notes. But three states offer a glimpse of how the US could do it.

Brian J. Smith/The Jackson Citizen Patriot/AP
Jacea French (l.) holds her newborn daughter, Hayden; and stands with her best friend Kaitlynn Panak who holds her newborn son, Nolan on May 5 in Brooklyn, Mich. The two mothers have been friends since the age of 12 and now live only two houses away from each other in Brooklyn.

As most of the country was busy celebrating Mother’s Day, the political satirist and stand-up comedian John Oliver used his popular show "Last Week Tonight" to call attention to an issue facing many new mothers in the United States: a lack of paid maternity leave.

“Just us and Papua New Guinea,” Mr. Oliver pointed out, fail to provide paid leave for mothers immediately after giving birth. And among wealthy nations, the United States stands alone as the only country without a nationwide paid leave policy for new mothers.

But if the United States were to provide paid maternity leave, what would that entail? Who would pay for it and how? A handful of US states offer a glimpse.

California, New Jersey, and Rhode Island currently extend unemployment disability compensation to individuals who take time off from work to care for a new child. In each of these states, new parents are entitled to four to six weeks of family leave.

This time off is funded by a small payroll tax; businesses don’t pay anything. The costs for employees add up to between a few pennies to a few dollars a month, reported Annie Finnigan for Working Mother Magazine.

Research in California and New Jersey has shown that the ability to take time off after birth has resulted in a substantial boost to mothers' long-term employment while having little to no negative effect on companies' bottom lines.

A 2012 study of New Jersey's law by the Center for Women and Work at Rutgers University found that women who had taken the time off after childbirth were much more likely to be working nine to 12 months after the birth of their child than new mothers who had not. They were also 39 percent less likely to be on public assistance and 54 percent more likely to have had experienced an increase in their wages.

“Recent research has examined the implementation of California’s paid family leave and found that it increased the weekly hours and pay of employed mothers of 1- to 3-year-old children by almost 10 percent,” added a 2014 report by the Obama administration's Council of Economic Advisors.

The council's report found that many of the concerns that paid family leave and flexible workplace policies place an unfair burden on employers are unfounded.

“In fact, a body of research finds that these practices can benefit employers by improving their ability to recruit and retain talent, lowering costly worker turnover and minimizing loss of firm-specific skills and human capital, as well as boosting morale and worker productivity,” the council wrote, citing to evidence from other countries and the three states where women are legally entitled to family leave.

About 90 percent of the companies affected by California’s law, which went into effect in 2004, said that paid family leave either had no impact or had a positive impact on productivity, performance, turnover, and morale, according to a 2011 study by the Center for Economic and Policy Research.

About 60 percent of surveyed employers said they saved money because employees used the family leave instead of sick leave, vacation time, or disability benefits. Moreover, some researchers argue that short-term paid family leave saves companies money because mothers who take time off after childbirth are more likely to come back to work, cutting the costs of replacing an employee.

Such laws might also increase a woman’s earning power. In Europe, where new mothers often take up to one year off following the birth of a child, research has demonstrated that these long leaves can negatively impact a woman’s career and salary. But findings from studies in the United States have suggested the opposite for short paid leaves, such as those offered in California and New Jersey.

“The data on the California and New Jersey laws suggests something not altogether expected but very encouraging. Since women who take paid family leaves are more likely to see a wage increase and less likely to go on welfare, such policies may exert a positive effect not only on gender inequality but on economic inequality,” Margaret Talbot wrote for the New Yorker.

Rhode Island's paid family leave legislation went into effect in January 2014. In January, President Obama called on Congress to pass a bill that would create a $2 billion incentive fund to help states pay for family leave programs.

Opponents argue that mandating paid family leave could be bad for women because businesses won’t want to hire them. Businesses have not been eager to offer paid leave to parents. Currently, only 12 percent of private employers offer paid family leave, according to the National Women’s Law Center.

Supporters suggest that most employers don’t offer paid family leave because they aren’t aware of the potential long-term benefits.

“Why do we have this system in the United States?” Oliver asked during his show. “Well, for a start, employers seem to fear any sort of mandate. But when it comes to family leave, any fears do tend to be overblown.”

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