– By Robert Scott –
A few weeks ago I wrote about the Hobby Lobby decision, and whether women employees, their (usually male) employers, or the government should have decision making authority as to what constitutes minimum legal health insurance coverage. Perhaps a metaphor to put that into perspective: the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), informally known as food stamps. My tax dollars enable people on SNAP to choose to buy or not to buy brussels sprouts. That doesn’t mean that I’m subsidizing the consumption of brussels sprouts, much less encouraging people to eat them; personally, I hate brussels sprouts. But brussels sprouts have been found to be nutritionally “safe and effective,” so my personal dislike for them shouldn’t drive the decision; they are and ought to be an option for SNAP recipients to buy, if they want to. The obvious replacement of government mandated SNAP with government mandated health insurance, and brussels sprouts with the various “safe and effective” methods of birth control, offers a rational way to look at both.
I’m tempted to segue into government mandated health insurance coverage and Viagra but I won’t, except to note that the playing field is most certainly uneven.
Instead, I’d like to explore another area in which the playing field for men and women is uneven: the conflict between the ticking biological clock and the ticking career clock that only women face. Is this an issue that we as a society need to help solve, perhaps the most obvious example of the uneven playing field faced by women in the work force?
As in the case of health care, we can look not only at our own country’s solution or lack thereof, but also at that of other countries. In the United States, the best we have come up with is the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA), which provides up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave. Google the subject and you will quickly find sentences like this one (from “The Huffington Post”): “The U.S. joins Lesotho, Swaziland and Papua New Guinea as the only countries that do not mandate paid maternity leave. Most countries ensure at least three months of paid leave for new mothers…” Show of hands: how many readers consider Lesotho, Swaziland and Papua New Guinea as peers of the United States in employee benefits?
We don’t provide paid maternity leave in the United States. Why does the rest of the world? Beyond the fundamental issue of fairness, there is the issue of hard-nosed economics. Minimum wage jobs don’t require much training, but for more complicated and better paying jobs employers invest a considerable sum in making sure their employees are productive. Filling minimum wage jobs predominantly with women (we do that) is one solution, but not one preferred by most countries. There, the calculus is that over the long run the cost of paid maternity leave is less than the cost of recruiting or training another skilled employee. And the government mandate of paid maternity leave ensures that some companies don’t go for the short-term profit rather than long-term gains (and equity), and undercut their competition by omitting such leave from their benefit packages.
Fixing this does not require federal action, something our Congress seems incapable of anyway. Right now, only three states, California, New Jersey and Rhode Island, offer paid family and medical leave. But we can be among the leaders in equal rights rather than once again lagging behind. We can help working women in South Carolina, and help level the uneven playing field. Contact your state Senator and Legislator for more details.