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By Kyleen Luhrs, Alee Perkins, Rachel Shaffer, Kelsey Sholund, Manahil Siddiqi, and Rebecca Wu, students at the University of Washington schools of medicine and public health. Manahil Siddiqi is pursuing a graduate certificate in the global health of women, adolescents and children. 

This op-ed originally appeared in The Olympian.

As students at the University of Washington School of Medicine and School of Public Health, we are concerned about the lack of paid parental leave in Washington state.

Currently, the United States is the only industrialized country that does not guarantee paid parental leave. Early childhood development has a huge impact on future health, and paid parental leave contributes to better infant care, family bonding, and improved health for new parents. We support House Bill 1116 and Senate Bill 5032, which both lay out detailed policy plans for paid parental and medical leave in Washington State.

The Legislature should act swiftly on these measures.

The American Academy of Pediatrics has promoted paid parental leave initiatives due to the proven health benefits these policies provide. It has been shown that paid parental leave results in higher rates of breastfeeding, which is the most optimal nutrition source for an infant. Breastmilk also provides natural, long-lasting immunity against illness. Early return to work is a barrier to breastfeeding, and forces many parents to purchase formula instead. In California, one of the few states that has a paid parental leave policy, the median duration of breastfeeding doubled for mothers who took paid maternity leave.

Parents are more likely to bring their babies to well child checkups if they are not forced to take time off from work to go to appointments. By incentivizing preventive care through paid parental leave, the cost to the medical system would decrease because serious health complications could be more easily avoided. A 2011 study found that 10 weeks of paid maternity leave resulted in a 10 percent reduction in early child mortality rates.

Many parents are forced to choose between providing for their families financially and the health of their children — a choice no parent should face.

Results from five key federal data sources between 2008 and 2013 showed that only 12 percent to 39 percent of workers in the United States currently have paid parental/family leave coverage. We urge Washington state to follow the examples of California, New York, New Jersey and Rhode Island in passing the policy measures in the House and Senate that provide paid family leave of 26 weeks, and paid medical leave of 12 weeks for serious illness, for all workers. A study funded by the US Department of Labor demonstrated that three in four voters would support this legislation.

We applaud efforts by groups, including the Washington chapter of Physicians for Social Responsibility and the Washington Work and Family Coalition, in promoting this issue. Paid parental leave will improve the health of Washington families, the workforce, and future generations, and we encourage the Legislature to act as soon as possible to implement these crucial policies.