OPINION: Alaskans benefit from paid family leave

Today, in homes across Alaska and the U.S., parents and caregivers are forced to make an impossible choice: Do I care for my baby or sick family member, or do I leave them to work and earn the pay our family needs to survive? This choice has haunting implications for babies, families, public health and the economy.

For me, this issue is extremely personal, as I know it is for many Alaskans and their families. My mother recently passed away from cancer. In the months and years leading to her passing, her illness required my attention and care. Without understanding and accommodation from my employer, I cannot imagine how much more difficult it would have been. Fortunately, I was not forced to choose between my career and my family.

During the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic, Congress passed emergency paid leave measures, recognizing the important implications that paid leave had for public health. While a sign of progress, those measures were unfortunately only temporary. Before COVID, the closest Congress had come to truly supporting our nation’s workforce was the Family Medical Leave Act almost 30 years ago, offering unpaid time off work and job protection for people who were welcoming a new baby or caring for a sick loved one. That historic legislation was a huge step forward. But even then, it didn’t go far enough, leaving many workers without protection.

Researchers estimate that providing 12 weeks of job-protected paid leave in the U.S. would result in nearly 600 fewer infant and post-neonatal deaths per year. And that’s a conservative number. Paid leave is also shown to improve maternal mental health and foster better child-parent relationships. It provides parents the time they need to breastfeed, attend well-child medical visits, and ensure their newborn, infant or toddler receives all necessary immunizations, with long-lasting benefits for their children’s health.

In 2019, 63% of mothers with infants were in the labor force. This means that many of those contributing to the economy were also dealing with the physical, emotional, and psychological demands of having a newborn or newly adopted child. Working families do their best to make sure that their babies get the essential love and attention they need in the first months of life and when their children are dealing with health issues. But we know that offering families time off to give children a healthy start in life, without risking financial security, is critical for a healthy work environment, a healthy home environment and, ultimately, a healthy economy.

For too long, we have asked businesses to shoulder paid leave for American workers. While employers identify significant benefits, including reducing staff turnover and the subsequent costs associated with training and hiring new staff, they cannot do it alone.

Currently, 75% of working people in Alaska — nearly 270,000 workers — do not have access to paid family leave through their employers. Even unpaid leave under the federal Family and Medical Leave Act is inaccessible for 68% of Alaskans. And only nine states and the District of Columbia have passed state-paid leave policies, making where you work and where you live the determining factors to whether you have access to this crucial support.


We’re woefully behind when it comes to supporting our nation’s families and children. Paid leave is a proven engine of economic stability and growth that gives today’s workers and our future workforce — their babies — the best chance for success. Now is the time for Congress to put America’s working families first and enact permanent national paid family and medical leave that benefits all families.

Stephanie Haydn Buchanan is a business consultant in Anchorage.

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