In her Mother's Day message, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton talked of helping new parents at the State Department.

Secretary HILLARY CLINTON (Department of State): We will continue to do all we can to advance paid sick to leave to new mothers recuperating from child birth, family members caring for the mother, as well as those caring for a new born with a serious ailment or disability.

MONTAGNE: Federal law doesn't require all that. Still, several states have passed paid family leave laws that cover births, adoptions and major illnesses. And the Obama administration supports similar efforts in other states. NPR's Jennifer Ludden reports.

JENNIFER LUDDEN: When Selena Allen of Tacoma, Washington found out she was pregnant with her second child, she started saving all her vacation and sick days. She hoarded away enough to take one month of maternity leave. But then her son was born a month-and-a-half early.

Ms. SELENA ALLEN: He was sent to the NICU, and I had to decide if I needed to take my precious maternity leave while he was there in the hospital or wait until I could take him home.

LUDDEN: Allen chose to wait.

Ms. ALLEN: I couldn't take any more time off. I couldn't afford to. I had a family to feed.

LUDDEN: So she went back to work a painful four days after giving birth. Federal law requires companies grant only unpaid leave, and even then nearly half the workforce doesn't qualify. So Allen and others traveled to Capitol Hill recently to lobby for help.

Julie Markowitz lives in Portland, Oregon. She said after a motorcycle accident landed her in intensive care, neither her husband nor sons could afford time off work to be at her side.

Ms. JULIE MARKOWITZ: I felt like I was going to die alone, because my family could not support me and be there when I truly needed them.

Ms. MARILYN WATKINS (Economic Opportunity Institute): Families need these kinds of programs now more than ever. And people don't have the slack to go a few weeks without pay.

LUDDEN: Marilyn Watkins is with the Economic Opportunity Institute in Seattle. Washington State passed a paid parental leave law in 2007. Advocates wanted it to include other kinds of family leave and still hope to broaden it eventually. But the bigger problem was that lawmakers could not agree on how to fund the program. Then, Watkins says, the recession hit.

Ms. WATKINS: A new program was a new source of funding, in the face of cutting so many other programs, was really just not a feasible situation.

LUDDEN: Washington State's paid leave program is on hold till 2012. But Watkins hopes the federal government can rescue it sooner. The Obama administration's proposed budget includes $50 million to help states with startup costs for family leave programs. It would pay for things like computers and administration - things Washington State estimates could cost $10 million the first year.

Ms. WATKINS: I would guess that probably four states, in addition to Washington, could well be in a position during the first half of 2011 to start enacting programs so that if we had five states applying for $50 million, that would actually cover it quite nicely.

Mr. MARC FREEDMAN (U.S. Chamber of Commerce): There's no such thing as the free leave benefit.

LUDDEN: Marc Freedman of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce says a bad economy is not the time to impose new mandates on business.

Mr. FREEDMAN: Even if they're funded through some public mechanism like a tax, there's still a cost to the employer in terms of other employees having to cover the activities. Sometimes that means an overtime charge. Sometimes it means bringing in temporary employees, depending upon what's being done.

LUDDEN: Despite this, Freedman also says a lot of employers with no formal leave policy do allow workers time off when a crisis hits. The Obama administration's startup subsidy for a family leave program must still pass Congress. If it does, cash-strapped states will still have to find a way to pay for the leave days themselves.

Jennifer Ludden, NPR News, Washington.

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MONTAGNE: This is NPR News.

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