Too many Oklahoma parents face an impossible choice – continue to work full-time and miss precious opportunities to bond with a new child, or leave work and put their finances and career at risk. Oklahomans shouldn’t face this choice.  New parents should be able to take leave to bond with and care for a new child without putting their family’s future at risk.

Senate Bill 549, which has passed the Senate and is scheduled for a hearing tomorrow in the House Business, Commerce, and Tourism Committee, is a good first step in the modernization of family leave in Oklahoma. [UPDATE: SB 549 passed committee with a 14-0 vote and will next go to the full House.] Under federal law, most American workers are allowed 12 weeks of unpaid leave for the birth or adoption of a child, and several states have provided further paid or unpaid leave. SB 549 would extend that to 20 weeks of unpaid leave for Oklahoma’s state employees.

Oklahoma family leave protections still have large gaps

As a state, Oklahoma has not yet adopted its own leave policy tailored to the needs of families in the state. SB 549 would be a good first step in developing such a policy. Oklahoma currently follows the guidelines of the Family and Medical Leave Act adopted by the federal government in 1993. FMLA applies to all employers with 50 or more employees – these employers must provide 12 weeks of unpaid leave to most employees to care for a new child.

But FMLA only covers about 60 percent of the workforce in America. And since this leave is unpaid, many workers can’t afford to take the time away without putting their family’s financial security at risk.  This is especially true for single parents and workers without a college degree.

SB 549 would not add paid leave, and the extended unpaid leave would only apply to state employees (not private sector workers). The bill would be a good first step for Oklahoma workers and families, but we can and should do more.

Family leave is a huge boost for mothers’ and children’s health

Access to leave is important for all new parents, who need time to bond with their new child.  Leave is especially important for new mothers who need time to recover from childbirth. New mothers with access to leave are less likely to experience postpartum depression, and infant mortality declines when maternity leave is extended. Oklahoma struggles in both these areas, and we should be doing more to help families. Among Oklahoma women who recently gave birth, 15.4 percent report symptoms of postpartum depression. And our infant mortality rate is among the highest in the nation at 7.3 infant deaths for every 1,000 live births.

Unpaid leave is beneficial for families who can afford it, but the opportunity to care for and bond with your child should not be limited based on income. Paid leave would be beneficial for all Oklahoma families.  Four states currently have policies that make paid leave available for most new parents, and we know from those states’ experience that paid family leave has far-reaching benefits for new parents, employers, and the economy:

  • New parents with access to paid family leave experience less stress than other new parents and are more likely to return to the workforce after welcoming a new child.
  • Employers whose workers can take paid leave see higher employee morale and improved employee retention.
  • Paid family leave allows reduced government spending on public assistance programs and increases our labor force participation (resulting in a larger tax base).

California, New Jersey, and Rhode Island now provide paid family leave for most new parents through an extension of their temporary disability insurance programs that are funded by employee payroll taxes. This limits the cost to employers and allows new parents to take the needed time to bond with a new child without putting their family’s financial security at risk.

California, the state that adopted the policy first in 2002, has seen success with the program. More than 90 percent of business in the state say they’ve experienced a neutral or positive impact since the law took effect. Families in California have also reported positive results – new dads are more likely to take time off and mothers are breastfeeding for twice as long.

Oklahoma can and should be a leader on this issue.  Healthy families are at the heart of Oklahoma values, and we should do all we can to ensure that families have the best possible start.