It’s back to school season, and parents across the state are striving to set their kids up for success. Unfortunately, the state is not helping – in fact, North Carolina earned a “D” for workplace support for parents, according to a recent report by the National Partnership for Women and Families.
Our state’s policies are decades out of date. A generation ago, a typical family consisted of a father who earned enough to support the family and a stay-at-home mother who handled most unpaid caregiving needs. Today, moms are breadwinners in more than half of all N.C. households with children under the age of 18. Seventy percent of North Carolina kids are growing up in homes where all available adults work and parents struggle to meet their responsibilities both at work and at home.
As if balancing work and family demands weren’t hard enough, simply getting pregnant puts women at risk of job discrimination. North Carolina remains one of only four states that provide no additional employment protections for pregnant workers. States across the country are passing legislation guaranteeing pregnant workers the right to reasonable workplace accommodations and job protection, but North Carolina is lagging behind.
Once a baby arrives, 1 in 4 employed moms in the U.S. return to the workplace within two weeks of giving birth because she can’t afford unpaid leave. The consequences are long-lasting: Families without paid leave face higher rates of infant and child mortality, shorter periods of breastfeeding, lower likelihood of completing well-child checks and vaccinations, higher rates of maternal depression and lower levels of father involvement in child-rearing. Lack of paid leave has a negative effect on children over their entire lifetimes.
Other states have passed state paid family leave insurance programs that provide partial-wage replacement while workers welcome a new child, recover from a serious illness themselves or care for a seriously ill family member. Despite progress elsewhere, the N.C. General Assembly has repeatedly refused even to consider legislation that would expand the state’s interpretation of the unpaid Family Medical Leave Act to include caring for a sibling, grandparent, grandchild, stepparent or parent-in-law.
No sick pay
But it’s not just major events like welcoming a new child that require caregiving time. More than 1.2 million North Carolinians (39 percent of the private sector workforce) cannot earn a single paid sick day to recover from illness, care for a sick child or attend preventive check-ups. For those lucky enough to earn paid sick days, there is no private-sector guarantee that those days can be used to care for a sick child or seek preventative treatment.
When we force parents to choose between a paycheck and going to work sick or sending a contagious child to school, we all lose. Moreover, lack of paid sick days increases the risk of long-term negative health effects when parents can’t attend prenatal appointments or well-child visits.
When kids are well, working families need affordable child care – and yet yearly costs for center-based care in North Carolina average $9,107 – 51 percent more than N.C. State tuition. Our failure to invest in affordable childcare has long-term consequences. For every dollar invested, early learning saves $8.60: Children who have high-quality early learning experiences are less likely to be arrested later in life and more likely to graduate from high school and gain stable employment.
North Carolina voters overwhelmingly support these policies – 7 out of 10 favor paid family leave insurance, paid sick days and federal and state investment in early learning programs. This election year, we need to use our outside voices and demand that candidates for every level of government, from local office to the presidency, commit to policies that grow thriving families.
Beth Messersmith is N.C. campaign director for MomsRising.org. Alison Stuebe is associate professor of obstetrics and gynecology at the University of North Carolina School of Medicine and Distinguished Scholar of Infant and Young Child Feeding at the Gillings School of Global Public Health.