LETTER: It’s about time for paid medical and family leave in Colorado 

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Editor: Twelve weeks unpaid time off. This is currently what families in Colorado get if they are welcoming a new child or need to care for a sick family member. Currently, companies in Colorado are required by law to follow the 1993 Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), which stipulates eligible employers give 12 weeks of unpaid leave to certain eligible employees after the birth/adoption of a child or to care for a sick family member. Many companies allow an employee to use all of their acquired sick and vacation time to have some income during this period. Companies are also, of course, able to offer paid leave if they feel like it — the vast majority do not. 

The U.S. is the only industrialized country in the world that does not guarantee paid parental leave, which has far-reaching negative repercussions for our families. International evidence indicates that the U.S. ranks far below countries with supportive family leave policies, such as Sweden, in various health indicators. The U.S. experience double the rates of maternal depression compared to Swedish women (10% and 5%, respectively). The U.S. also has much higher levels of behavioral and emotional problems among our preschool children, compared to Sweden. An infant in the U.S. is more than twice as likely to die in the first year of life than an infant in Sweden. A pregnant woman or new mother in the USA is four times more likely to die than a mother in Sweden.

In the U.S., huge health disparities along socioeconomic and racial lines also persist. A Black mother, for instance, is more than four times as likely to die during pregnancy or the year after birth than a white mother. Colorado is no exception to widespread maternal and child health disparities. Low-income children in Colorado have higher rates of infant and childhood death, lower use of preventative care, and are more likely to suffer from illness. The current FMLA status quo in the Colorado and across the USA is failing families.

Well-designed studies from around the world indicate that paid family and medical leave policies can benefit the short-and-long-term health of mothers and children, including fewer low birth weight and preterm infants, increased rates of breastfeeding, reduced rates of hospitalizations among infants, reduced postpartum depression, and improved overall maternal health. Studies suggest that such benefits are achieved from more parental care if parents are able to stay home longer after welcoming a new child, more consistent medical care for infants if parents can more easily prioritize doctor’s visits while on paid leave, extra resources for families, such as more nutritious food, and lower maternal stress that enables a better in-utero environment during pregnancy and caretaking abilities postpartum. Research also shows that when family and medical leave is paid, low-income and disadvantaged families are more likely to take the leave than when it is unpaid. This enables more families to benefit and has the potential to reduce health disparities.

Proposition 118 would create a paid family and medical leave program in Colorado, benefiting 2.6 million Coloradans. Under this program, eligible employees with family or medical needs would have up to 12 weeks of PAID leave. Employers and employees would split 50/50 a contribution of .9% of employee wage (employers could choose to pay up to 100%). This certainly is not a perfect policy solution to fix our state’s maternal and child health problems, but it is a step in the right direction.

I for one believe that contributing a tiny proportion of my salary (<0.5%) to have 12 weeks of paid time to care for a new child or sick family member if needed is 100% worth it! And even if I don’t need it, many, many, families do, which I want to support. This is called communal good and something we as Coloradans should strive for; our families deserve it. 

— Karen Hampanda, via [email protected]

Karen Hampanda is an Assistant Professor in Obstetrics and Gynecology at the University of Colorado Medical Campus.