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Family Leave
Cate Claus argues that even in progressive California family leave laws are short-sighted and out-of-date.

By Cate Claus

The mother of my newborn patient, herself only 17, told me she was returning to work six days after giving birth. As I raise two young children of my own while training as a pediatrician at Children’s Hospital Oakland, her story gives me pause.

With new health care policies coming, it may be time to re-think parental leave and its role in preventative medicine. We are one of four countries that don’t guarantee paid time off to new parents -- Liberia, Papua New Guinea and Swaziland are the others. A 1993 law allows 12 weeks of leave to workers but only in companies of 50 or more, without job protection or paid time off. 

California became the first state to enact paid family leave in 2002, but the benefits are limited. Employees must have contributed to State Disability Insurance. Paid benefits last for six weeks over twelve-months to care for a child or a seriously ill family member. The ceiling, however, is 55 percent of earnings, or a maximum of about $1000 per week. There are a handful of other states with similar benefits.

Still, our state efforts fall short. Gaps in benefits can be complicated and difficult to navigate. A study in 2007 showed that only 28 percent of Californians were aware of the program. We can do better.

Babies with mothers who return to work within 12 weeks are less likely to be breastfed, up-to-date on immunizations, and more likely to exhibit behavior problems. Companies that offer parental leave have a higher employe retention rate and minimize costly turnover.

This is a compelling public health issue with considerable financial considerations. I believe current policies are myopic. Improvements need to include adequate wage compensation, job protection and extended leave.

My patient and her mother are up against the odds -- we could do a better job at supporting children’s health and well being by improving care of their working parents.

With a Perspective, I’m Cate Claus.

Dr. Cate Claus is a pediatric resident at Children's Hospital Oakland

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