Boston took a progressive step Wednesday when it created an ordinance that would allow paid parental leave for all non-unionized city employees. This new law will allow mothers and fathers, including those in same-sex couples, six weeks of paid leave after the birth, adoption or stillbirth of a child.
City Councilor Michelle Wu, who brings her son to City Hall every day to balance work and motherhood, along with Councilors Timothy McCarthy and Tito Jackson, proposed the ordinance, working closely with Boston Mayor Martin Walsh’s administration.
“This is long overdue. The ordinance as proposed is a major step forward for working parents,” Wu told The Boston Globe. “It’s our responsibility as a community, and also great for the city of Boston as an employer, to recruit and maintain a talented and productive workforce.”
The ordinance would apply to employees who have worked in the city for at least a year and would give them descending pay the longer they are gone. For the first two weeks of their leave, they’ll get their full paycheck, for the second two weeks, they’ll get 75 percent and for the last two weeks, they’ll get 50 percent. However, if employees have extra vacation days or sick time, they could supplement their leave with that to get the full pay the entire time.
“When it comes down to Boston residents and Boston families, I think it’s a cost that should be and can be absorbed,” McCarthy, who has two teenaged children, told the Globe. “As a father of two boys, I know that bond that happens when those newborns are brought home. You only get that time once. It’s very important for the family unit.”
He’s right: studies have shown that paid parental leave leads to improved health of children and, of course, stronger family bonds. It also increases the odds that mothers will return to their careers after giving birth, which is an important step to closing the gender-wage gap that still persists.
However, it’s not all good news. This shiny new plan is limited to non-unionized employees, and about 90 percent of employees in Boston are part of a union. Unions negotiate pay and benefits, meaning this new ordinance won’t affect them, and the city can’t really do anything to change that.
“It is my hope that businesses will consider taking the same action steps to ensure families are thriving and healthy,” Walsh said a Monday press release.
Admittedly, while the press release is informative, it does its best to make the program look more widespread on the surface than it is in reality. The fact that this is only available to non-unionized employees is not mentioned anywhere in the press release by the mayor’s office. It says “eligible” employees, but unless someone did further research, they probably wouldn’t assume they weren’t eligible.
Other cities throughout the nation already have paid family leave for non-union employees, and a few states have the same for state employees. A few states even have paid family leave for all workers, not just state employees.
Generally speaking, this ordinance a really good step for Boston. It will attract strong workers who don’t have to be afraid that, if they have a child, their job will be on the line. Welcoming back the same worker after they just took paid leave is easier than hiring and having to train an entirely new employee. This new ordinance also gives men a chance to take paid time off, allowing them to have a bigger role in early childcare. Paid family leave is a really great thing, and it’s a concept that we can’t argue.
However, we have to wonder why the United States is the only developed country to not adopt a federal paid parental leave program. Obviously, it looks really terrible on the surface, but maybe there’s a reason for that. Maybe it’s so expensive that passing it federally would be doing Americans a disservice, at least until we have an economy that can support the program the way it deserves to be supported.
Maybe all the fighting that’s done in the U.S. Congress just doesn’t allow for laws like this to pass, or maybe they want to leave it to the states. Maybe Congress thinks that enough people have it through their cities or through their private employers that there’s no need to pass a federal law. We’ll probably never know.
On a more local level, financial considerations are just as important. Is this really the right time to be passing programs that will probably be expensive? Walsh is a huge proponent for creating ordinances and signing off on programs to help Boston residents. And while we generally support those programs and Walsh’s intentions, those programs cost money. Of all years to throw money at brand new initiatives, the year with the record-breaking snowfall that required boatloads of money for cleanup doesn’t feel like the appropriate time. Instead, we should wait until we have the money to do this program the right way (read: to include all workers in the city of Boston and take into account unionized workers who may not feel they have the benefits they deserve).
That being said, this is still a great program. The fact that most cities don’t have paid parental leave for their employees sets a bad precedent, and this ordinance by the City of Boston may start to change things. But in admiring the program, we can’t get caught up in the symbolism of Boston’s steps toward paid parental leave and forget about the millions of Americans still working without those benefits.