Nearly two-thirds of Minnesota mothers participating in a state survey said they took unpaid leave after giving birth.

The Minnesota Department of Health (MDH) report was released Thursday at a time when Democrats and Republicans in the state Legislature are pushing competing paid family leave proposals.

The DFL proposal would provide up to 12 weeks of paid leave through a state-managed fund employers and employees would pay into. The GOP plan would allow employers to customize an insurance plan for paid leave and provide tax credits to small businesses to help them afford to provide coverage.

"The time following childbirth is a key opportunity to bond with and care for your baby, recover from delivery, and adjust to life with a new child," state Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm, said in a statement. "Unfortunately, many mothers do not have enough leave to take the time they need and many get no paid time off at all."

Health officials note that access to paid parental leave is linked to fewer infant deaths, increased duration of breastfeeding and improved birth and developmental outcomes. It also benefits the mother's mental health, including a decreased likelihood of depression or psychological distress after childbirth.

According to data collected through monthly surveys with mothers from 2016 to 2020, 42% took only unpaid leave after giving birth and 3% took no leave. Meanwhile, 34% of mothers took only paid leave while 21% took a combination of paid and unpaid leave.

"The stress of unpaid maternity leave has left my family struggling to survive, to pay bills and we almost couldn't pay rent (I had to borrow money) which then we almost got evicted," said one mom cited in the report. "The stress of having a baby without paid maternity leave has taken its toll mentally, physically, emotionally, and spiritually."

Without adequate paid leave, parents often have to decide between the economic hardship of staying home without pay or struggling to find affordable child care for their babies.

According to the report, infant care is the most difficult to find because most child-care centers don't accept infants younger than 6 weeks. And it's expensive.

Minnesota ranks fourth out of 50 states and Washington, D.C., for the most expensive infant care in the country, averaging $1,341 a month or $16,087 a year, according to the report. The lack of available and affordable child care may prevent some from returning to work, particularly single mothers and the working poor, the study says.

The survey also illustrated disparities in parental leave based on race and income.

For example, 60% of low-income mothers used only unpaid leave compared with 34% of those with higher incomes. People of color are more likely than white Minnesotans to be in low-paying and less secure jobs with fewer benefits, including paid leave, according to MDH.

The collected data also show the median amount of leave taken also varies by race. White mothers took almost twice the amount of leave compared with all other racial and ethnic groups. Likewise, higher income moms took significantly longer leaves than those with lower incomes.

The lack of uniform paid maternity leave is one of the systemic issues that drives health disparities in Minnesota, said Deb Fitzpatrick of the Children's Defense Fund Minnesota, part of a coalition that has advocated for paid family and medical leave for nearly six years.

"Without a broad-based public approach where there's some kind of guarantee that every worker is going to have access, we're going to continue to see these disparities," she said.

The fact that Republicans have pitched a plan is progress because now there's consensus that a problem needs to be addressed, Fitzpatrick said.

"Now we're arguing how to do it," she said.

So far, 11 states have passed paid parental leave, Fitzpatrick said.