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US Parents, Businesses at Odds Over Paid Leave

US Parents, Businesses at Odds Over Paid Leave
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Jenny Cheek of Washington, D.C. was pregnant with her first child when she was shocked to discover she would have no paid parental leave from her government job.

The United States is one of only two (out of 185) countries in the world that do not provide paid maternity leave, according to a 2014 United Nations report. The other is Papua New Guinea.

Cheek used a week of paid vacation and then had to go on leave without pay. At that point, she and her husband decided they could manage on his paycheck alone. Cheek became a stay-at-home mom to baby Tilley.

Cheek says new moms need time to adjust to parenting.

“Almost every other country in the world has figured out the way to make this happen. If every other country can figure it out, I know there is a way for the United States to provide better for its people.”

Secretary/treasurer for her family's business, Tricia Baldwin has a different opinion. She agrees paid leave is good, but she knows her company cannot afford it. Reliable Contracting has been in business for 87 years.

"It doesn't work for every business and it doesn't work for every position in the company," Baldwin said. “I really believe in our system - the free market system. And I believe it is what makes us strong and makes us flexible. It’s just adding another cost, another mandate.”

U.S. law says new parents may take 12 weeks of leave without pay. Businesses are not required to offer it, although some do so voluntarily.

There also are no requirements for paid sick leave - 43 million Americans don’t have it.

President Obama promoted paid sick and parental leave in his state of the union address in January and called on Congress to act.

"Send me a bill that gives every worker in America the opportunity to earn seven days of paid sick leave. It’s the right thing to do," he said.

Representative Carolyn Maloney, a democrat from New York, is introducing a parental bill she's proposed for several years. It would grant six weeks of paid parental leave for federal workers.

"One hundred eighty-three countries can’t be wrong,” she said.

New Virginia Democratic Representative Don Beyer, also supports the bill. He says his family-owned automobile dealership offers paid leave to entice new parents to return to the job.

"When we lose somebody, it can cost a year's worth of income and training somebody new," he said.

Jenny Cheek says the bill will help many like her.

“People have trouble with breastfeeding sometimes or there is just other adjustment issues and knowing that you’re also not getting a paycheck is really stressful," she said. "There is no way I could have been an attentive mom, a dedicated mom in the same way if I was worried every single day about how I was going to pay the bills.”

Baldwin’s company, Reliable Contracting, uses paid sick leave as an incentive for employees who have worked there at least five years.

Baldwin says giving paid sick and parental leave to all her 400 workers would be devastating to her company, which is still climbing out of the recession and barely making a 2.5 percent profit.

"Companies aren't getting out of this recession like others. Adding that additional mandate would be adding additional costs to a struggling company," she said. "When I try to be creative and think, 'Can I do this for employees to help them with this particular issue they are dealing with?' I find out no....It’s frustrating."

The president, Democrats and parents may want these bills. But some say they are unlikely to pass. Republicans now control congress and experts say it’s tough to be pro-business and pro-family at the same time.

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    Carolyn Presutti

    Carolyn Presutti is an Emmy, Silver World Medal, AP Broadcaster’s Best of Show, and Clarion award-winning television correspondent who works out of VOA’s Washington headquarters. She has also won numerous TV, Radio, Multimedia, and Digital awards for her TV/Web coverage of Muslim Portraits, The Syrian Medical Crisis, Haiti, The Boston Marathon Bombing, Presidential Politics, The Southern Economy, Google Glass & Other Wearables, and the 9/11 Anniversary.  Presutti was VOA’s Nathanson Scholar to the Aspen Institute and VOA’s delegate to the U.S. government’s Executive Leadership Program (ELP).