The House committee on Public Health this morning passed a bill by Rep. Clarke Tucker (D-Little Rock) that gives a month and a half of paid maternity leave to state employees. HB 1426 would allow new mothers to take up to six weeks off work following the live birth of a child, without dipping into sick days or vacation time. They’d be eligible for up to $500 per week, depending on salary.

It’s no secret that the lack of universal maternity leave constitutes one of the biggest failings of American social policy. Under the federal Family and Medical Leave Act, or FMLA, women must be granted 12 weeks of unpaid leave if they have a baby, but foregoing three months worth of paychecks isn’t an option for many families.

Every other developed country requires that new mothers be given paid time off work, but in the U.S. it’s up to the employer. Some provide paid leave; most do not. 

Tucker’s bill wouldn’t touch private sector employers, but it takes state government in the right direction. Maternity leave is shown to reduce absenteeism and turnover, said Tucker, while also improving the health of babies, reducing infant mortality and postpartum depression, and strengthening the bond between mothers and children.

“There’s not that many bills where we can directly support workforce development and also strengthen families,” he said.

A fiscal impact study attached to the bill estimates that around 118 state employees per year would take advantage of maternity leave. It would cost the state about $350,000 annually spread across all state agencies (not including colleges and universities, which have their own maternity leave policies; those vary from institution to institution).

Six weeks, by the way, is a pittance compared to what’s standard for new mothers elsewhere in the developed world. Most European countries offer new mothers 14 – 22 weeks of paid leave, and many require employers to offer new fathers time off as well. In Germany, new parents can take up to 14 months of parental leave at 65 percent of their normal pay.

HB 1426 passed out of committee on a voice vote and now heads to the House floor. Assuming it passes there, Tucker said that Sen. Missy Irvin (R-Mountain View) will carry it in the Senate.