By Julianne Yacovone and Emily Andrews
Feb 8, 2022

As researchers on the front lines of improving child health and creating better jobs, we know that securing paid family and medical leave would have far-reaching benefits for West Virginia families.

It would especially help new moms, foster families and workers struggling with addiction. Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., has a historic opportunity to help families get what they need by restoring the Build Back Better Act.

This crucial bill, which includes several other family-friendly investments, like child care and an expanded child tax credit, has stalled out in the U.S. Senate. Its advancement hinges on Manchin’s support.

West Virginia is one of the most dangerous states to live in, if you’re pregnant or a new mom, according to the U.S. Maternal Vulnerability Index. Nationwide, half of all postpartum women earning low incomes face some form of maternal depression.

In a study published last year, experts said mental health disorders are “the leading cause among preventable deaths,” such as suicide, of people who are pregnant or have just given birth. For children, moms’ unaddressed mental health interferes with critical mother-child bonds; causes developmental delays; and leads to learning and behavioral challenges throughout childhood.

Universal paid family and medical leave is part of the solution to reduce these harms. It would enable every pregnant woman or new mom to seek care and care for their newborn, without risking the family’s economic security.

A federal paid leave policy also is critical for foster families. The number of kids in West Virginia’s foster care system has spiked by almost 70% over the past decade, recently growing to more than 7,000 children. When children join a foster family, they need time to form healthy bonds with the new adults in their life. Paid leave would ensure that employed adults, including relatives serving as foster parents, could prioritize caregiving during this sensitive period.

Nearly 9 in 10 children enter West Virginia’s foster system because of neglect, such as when a parent struggles with a substance use disorder. Paid family and medical leave is vital here, too. In recent years, a majority of adults who needed treatment for addiction held a job. But without paid leave, most can’t afford to take time off to receive effective care. Particularly as many families continue to confront opioid addiction, a paid leave guarantee would help more workers focus on recovering.

Small businesses in West Virginia employ nearly half our workforce. As with most small employers across the country, they don’t have the capacity to provide paid leave. But a survey from Lake Research Partners shows a majority of them strongly support a universal paid family and medical leave policy for their workers.

Employers know that keeping workers healthy is good for their bottom line. It reduces turnover and keeps women in the workforce. Currently, just 21% of West Virginians have access to paid family leave. Under the Build Back Better Act, the remaining 79% — an additional 575,000 West Virginia workers — would gain access.

With this policy, when medical or caregiving needs arise, workers could take up to four weeks off without losing their job. If they use the full four weeks, workers earning the median state income would recoup 80% of their normal wages during that time. This would help families and businesses with increased employment and financial stability.

We all deserve the chance to be healthy and do our best at work and for our families. Every child should have the best shot at a successful future, and research is clear that, when parents are healthy, kids do better. Yet, deaths tied to pregnancy and giving birth happen in America more than any other wealthy nation.

Congress has exacerbated families’ challenges by failing to ensure paid leave for all, unlike other countries. While West Virginia legislators recently extended Medicaid health insurance for new moms up to a full year, families need so much more. With paid leave, everyone wins

— workers, businesses, parents, children, and the economy overall.

Children and families are hurting. A federal paid leave program, alongside other key priorities in the Build Back Better Act, can make a huge difference. We hope Manchin chooses to be the leader we need by supporting this provision and others in the Build Back Better Act that will help all West Virginia families succeed.

Julianne Yacovone is director of child health at West Virginians for Affordable Health Care —

Emily Andrews is director of education, labor and worker justice at the Center for Law and Social Policy —