What is it about?

Simply enacting or offering a paid parental leave plan does not automatically mean that working parents will actually be able to take a leave. So at a high level, our research is about increasing our understanding of the factors that prevent workers from taking a leave. Specifically, we start by developing a four-part framework of availability, awareness, affordability, and assurance to capture the key considerations for whether a worker takes a leave. One of the challenges with research into these issues, however, is that the decision to take a leave is very complex. So in this project we focus on one important institution that has the potential to reduce leave-taking barriers: labor unions (equivalently, trade unions). We then discuss the ways in which labor unions can help address each of these considerations. Lastly, we analyze data from over 4,000 U.S. women across a 15-year time period and find that union-represented workers are at least 17 percent more likely to use paid maternity leave than comparable nonunion workers, and that unions facilitate this leave-taking through the availability, awareness, and affordability channels. We also find that mothers who take a paid maternity leave experience a post-leave penalty—specifically, their wage growth is slower when compared to those who did not take a leave. Surprisingly, we did not find that labor unions lessen this penalty, which would be one aspect of the assurance dimension.

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Why is it important?

Paid parental leave is an important issue around the globe. In countries with long histories of universal maternity leave, there is concern with usage rates and with extending this to fathers. In the United States—the lone industrialized country without universal paid leave for new parents (though there are now a very small number of state-based programs and many employer-provided plans)—the central debate is over whether and how to enact such a policy. But what we emphasize is that simply offering a family leave policy does not automatically alleviate workers’ concerns about income loss or other potential negative consequences of taking a leave. So to promote actual leave-taking, it's important to recognize barriers to leave-taking as well as interventions that can reduce these barriers.


At one level, this research is about what unions do with respect to the important issue of helping new parents take the amount of leave they deserve after a birth or adoption. In looking at the aggregate picture, they appear to be helping in some ways, with perhaps room for expanding their activities. What happens on a case-by-case basis, we cannot observe. But at a higher level, this research is about continuing to deepen our understanding of the barriers to parental leave taking, which can help with policy design when (hopefully) a universal policy is (finally) enacted in the United States.

Professor John W Budd
University of Minnesota System

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This page is a summary of: What Do Unions Do for Mothers? Paid Maternity Leave Use and the Multifaceted Roles of Labor Unions, ILR Review, December 2018, SAGE Publications, DOI: 10.1177/0019793918820032.
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