As a student interested in Reproductive Justice, I know that comprehensive paid parental leave is essential to the well-being of families. Brown’s policy, just six weeks of paid leave, is grossly inadequate. It is time the University adopts a new policy that will serve all members of our community — with six months of paid leave, an additional six months of paid lactation breaks and child care subsidies of up to $13,000 based on income.
Parental leave is critical for infant health outcomes. A 2005 study showed a 10-week extension of paid leave decreased post-neonatal mortality by a staggering 4.1%. Part of the increase in positive health outcomes may be attributed to higher rates of immunization, since inflexible work schedules are often cited as barriers to childhood vaccination. Notably, a 2012 study across 185 countries found that a mere 10% increase in the number of weeks of paid leave led to a 22 and 25% increase in polio and measles vaccinations. Other improvements can likely be attributed to increased rates of breast and chestfeeding, which is widely understood to promote overall health in infants and is similarly correlated to paid parental leave. An extended policy at Brown — up to six months, per UNICEF’s recommendation — could mean the difference between sickness and health.
Brown’s current policy is not just dangerous in its insufficiency; it’s discriminatory. Financial pressure to return to work has historically stripped low-income families of their ability to breastfeed and chestfeed. Because race and class are highly linked in the US, the rates of chestfeeding in many communities of color are lower than in white ones — negatively impacting the overall health of newborns of color, especially Black newborns. In addition to paid family leave, Brown must institute a new policy that works against the national trend by also implementing an additional six months of paid at-work lactation breaks.
Opponents of expanding Brown’s policy might point out that under the Rhode Island Parental and Family Medical Leave Act, employees can extend their parental leave an additional seven weeks unpaid. But unpaid leave does little to promote positive health outcomes for the parents or children who are most vulnerable. Union staff members encompass the highest concentration of staff of color at Brown, with large chunks of workers in hourly positions. With hourly employees receiving some of the lowest compensation at the University, the notion that all employees can choose to extend their leave is more fantasy than fact. And with the estimated average cost of infant care in Rhode Island being $13,696 annually, only a select group of highly compensated (and likely white) employees can afford to extend their leave beyond the paid six weeks. A $13,000 stipend for child care in addition to paid leave would ensure that parents are prepared to meet these new costs, in addition to their existing cost of living. Given the historic and present entanglement between gynecology, obstetrics, enslavement and racially discriminatory healthcare, for Brown to uphold a policy that disproportionately affects women of color is more than ignorant; it’s racist.
In addition, the U.S. government has a history of depriving communities of color, especially Indigenous and Black parents, of their parenthood. While different in its extent and intensity, the threat of a missed paycheck means that many women of color employed by Brown may be missing out on important early parenthood experiences because they are financially forced to return to work after six weeks — a time when babies have only just started to socially smile.
The positive impact of extending paid parental leave on the health of all parents cannot be overstated. A 2019 study found that parents returning to work at least 12 weeks after childbirth experience lower rates of depressive symptoms than their colleagues who return to work sooner. Physical health improves under extended parental leave as well; in Norway, a four-week extension of leave improved pain levels and rates of exercise among new parents. Comprehensive, paid parental leave policies save lives and promote well-being. To maintain a policy that falls short of this lacks reason and, frankly, is cruel.
Those who oppose a more expansive leave policy might suggest that such a plan would cost Brown tremendously. But this resistance is short-sighted. The reality is that employers paying workers at all income levels have repeatedly found that comprehensive paid leave reduces attrition of women in the workplace, and, in one report, it was shown to increase productivity by 70% and morale by more than 80%. Simply put, when employees feel cared for, they want to do their jobs, and they want to do them well.
This, at least, was my mother’s experience when she was pregnant 24 years ago. To this day, she feels tremendous gratitude for the generous parental leave that saw her through the arrival of my older sister. Having had most of her cervix removed after a bout of cervical cancer, my mom was considered high-risk from the start. Then she experienced a number of complications that landed her on bedrest for 23-and-three-quarters hours a day. Her treatment caused her to miss months of work. When she finally gave birth, there were more complications: a retained placenta which, weeks later, would lead to infection and hemorrhaging. Miraculously, my mom was fine. And, perhaps more miraculously, she was paid through it all. I wish we lived in a country where this was the standard of care for parenting employees. But the reality is that my mom was privileged by her dual-income household, access to comprehensive insurance and a supportive family. She had so much going in her favor — and yet still reflects on these times as some of the most challenging in her life. What if she hadn’t been so lucky? What if she had needed to race back to work to make ends meet?
That is the position in which Brown’s current policy risks putting many of their employees. And it’s a position that we know, independent of health conditions like my mom’s, puts lives in danger.
It’s no secret that Brown has a reputation as a beacon of progressivism. It makes broad commitments on issues ranging from net-zero emissions to wrestling with its complex ties to enslavement. It imagines itself as a leader in Reproductive Justice too — in its discussions centering Reproductive Justice and scholarship and in its offering of a concentration in Reproductive Health to interested medical students. But these offerings are not enough. Reproductive Justice requires the fundamental human rights of dignity, health care and a living wage that supports the well-being of families. If Brown wants to do more than talk the talk, the University must start with an equitable parental leave policy that uplifts all community members.
Brown has the resources it needs to make profound changes in the lives of the parents it employs and to be the leader in Reproductive Justice that it claims to be. It’s time for students to hold the administration accountable. It’s time for Brown to walk the walk.