Recently having gone through my first pregnancy, I was 100% surprised and blindsided when I called my employers’ Human Resource department to set up my maternity leave, only to be told I was eligible for 6 weeks of unpaid leave. Through my entire life, I had come to trust that if the time ever came that I was going to have a baby, I would be able to take 3 months off for recovery, bonding, and caring for my child. I had also been lead to believe that I would still receive some sort of cash supplement to keep my bills paid. Neither of these were reality. Through reaching out to other mothers in my friend group and community, and reaching out to other mothers across the US, I have come to find out that I was not alone in my belief of what maternity leave should be, or the reality I so harshly had to face. I was lucky enough to qualify for FMLA, if you can call that luck; there are some mothers I’ve talked to that for lack of job protection or financial hardships, had to return to work within 1 or 2 weeks of delivery. I, along with innumerable other mothers, found the reality of no paid maternity leave to be extremely stressful. While some believe that companies cannot afford to take the hit of providing paid maternity leave to all employees, what are the risks associated with such lack of protection, and can we as a nation afford to continue leaving paid maternity leaves up to the discretion of the employer?
Part I: Information Collection
Sutton, Amy L., ed. “Maternity Leave in the United States: Paid Parental Leave Is Still Not Standard, Even among the Best U.S. Employers” Pregnancy and Birth Sourcebook (2009): 588-94. Print. This journal article covers the statistics for the top 100 “best employers of working mothers” in the US and the amount of paid parental leave offered by each. It looks at maternity leave, paternity leave, and adoptive parent leave separately. There is also information about state enacted bills which ensure better parental leave benefits than the current national standard that Family Medical Leave Act and Pregnancy Discrimination Act creates.
While this was published 5 years ago, the information presented is still deemed current and valid. It is upsetting to see that of the top rated 100 companies for working mothers, over 50 percent of them offered 6 weeks or less of paid maternity leave, and 7% offered no paid leave at all. This is not a compilation of all jobs in the US, but the 100 that are deemed the best for working mothers. Mothers who were not granted paid leave returned to work, on average, around 6.6 weeks; a whole 4 weeks earlier than those who received some sort of maternity pay. Lack of maternity pay not only negatively affects the mother and family, but most importantly the infant. “Newborns have decreased access to follow-up care, lower rates of immunization, and decreased breast-feeding by four and one-half weeks on average as a result of early returns to work.”
Popovich, Nadja. “The US Is Still the Only Developed Country That Doesn’t Guarantee Paid Maternity Leave.” US News. The Guardian, 3 Dec. 2014. Web. 8 May 2015. <http://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2014/dec/03/-sp-america-only-developed-country-paid-maternity-leave.> Article comes from a popular news website and covers 34 developed countries and the length of paid maternity leave provided. The US is the only developed country in the world to not offer paid maternity leave. Also provides facts on the four US states that have implemented laws to provide paid parental leave, while briefly covering its effect on business. Mentions the Obama ministration as granting money to Rhode Island, Massachusetts, Montana and District of Columbia for furthering research on implementing national paid parental leave. Findings not published.
“In the US, paid parental leave is considered a benefit provided by employers. Yet, only 12% of workers reported having such coverage in 2013, according to an estimate from the Bureau of Labor Statistics National Compensation Survey.” Not only is there no national set up for paid parental leave, but the stipulations under FMLA to qualify for protected leave is set up more in the benefit of the employer, rather than the employee. Due to the national parental leave acts falling short, some states have taken it upon themselves to provide their residents with better benefits. As of 2002, California, Washington, Rhode Island and New Jersey have set up local initiatives for parental leave. California now offers 6 weeks at 55% pay for new or adoptive parents. While the biggest obstacle of implementing a national paid parental leave is the idea that it is bad for business, Eileen Appelbaum, a senior economist at the Center for Economic and Policy research, states, “No one would call California or New Jersey bad states for business…”
Lerner, Sharon. “Is 40 Weeks the Ideal Maternity Leave Length?” Slate. N.p., 12 Dec. 2011. Web. 08 May 2015. <http://www.slate.com/articles/double_x/doublex/2011/12/maternity_leave_how_much_ time_off_is_healthiest_for_babies_and_mothers_.html>. Slate, an online popular news magazine, published this article regarding length of maternity leave and its effects on the mother and child. Sharon Lerner, author of The War on Moms: On Life in a Family-Unfriendly Nation and author of this article, advocates for paid maternity leave in the US. Her ideology is based on data regarding the health of the mother and child in relation to paid parental leave time. The data covers varying ranges of leave times in both the US and European countries in regards to infant mortality rates, high school drop-out rates, child IQ, postpartum depression, illness, national health care cost, average breastfeeding lengths and more. There is significant data supporting that maternity leaves around 40 weeks is the most ideal period of time, allowing for the largest benefit to the child’s health without having a negative effect on the mothers economical and workplace standing.
This article was my favorite of the resources collected. It includes many different sources of data, collected from many countries before and after paid maternity leave time increases including the effects it had on the mothers and children over a lifetime. When Norway extended their maternity leave in 1977 from zero to four months paid leave, and unpaid leave from three to 12 months, high school dropout rates decreased while male IQ scores and average height saw increases over time. Childhood illness, like respiratory infections, and mortality rates saw a decrease with extended maternity leaves as well. With just a 10 week extended maternity leave, the country saw a 20 percent decrease in infant death between the ages of 2 and 12 months. Depression rates in mothers also decreased substantially with just a one week extension of paid maternity leave. Increased paid maternity leave also allowed for a longer average time of breastfeeding, which was correlated with a healthier nation, living longer lives (on average), with lower national health care costs overall. Business is still strong in these prominent European countries, despite the idea that forced paid maternity leave is bad for employers. These countries are also superior to the US in average national citizen health, longevity, and health care costs.
Part II: Public Writing
All of the data collected from different European countries over the past 50 years shows strong correlation between longer paid maternity leaves and healthier children, mothers and nations. The biggest piece of data collected showed that a 10 week extension of paid maternity leave lead to a 20 percent decrease in infant mortality rates of those aged 2-12 months. While a lower percentage, there was also a significant decrease in death of children 1-5 years old. Yet, the US still has no policy on paid maternity leave.
The average maternity leave time of all the developed countries in the world is around 1 year 1 month, with the majority of countries offering at least 3 months at 80-100 percent pay, with a reduced or unpaid rate after that point. Other countries have seen the positive impacts on the nation as a whole due to increasing the amount of time parents are able to spend with their children. Therefore, they have made it a priority to set up a national protected, paid maternity leave for all. While most countries make this leave optional for new parents, some countries have made the first 12 weeks of leave mandatory. The benefits from the time spent bonding, breastfeeding and nurturing are so crucial to the health of the nation overall, that some do not leave the choice of maternity leave up to the parents.
With no national set up for paid maternity leave, some states have taken it upon themselves to make state regulated legislation providing paid maternity leave to mothers. California currently offers 12 weeks maternity leave at 80 percent pay for its mothers. The US needs to follow suit. There should be no question of whether or not paid maternity leave is a luxury or necessity. Ask yourself, can a nation truly call itself the best nation in the world, if it sees substantial data regarding how to increase the wellbeing and health of a nation, and does nothing about it? The best way to acquire such a crucial benefit is to reach out to state and national representatives, expressing concern and pressing for action and change. Currently, the people you can write to regarding this issue are Oregon State Governor Kate Brown at 900 Court St NE, Salem, OR 97310 or call her office number (503) 378-4582, Oregon State Senator Jeff Merkley at http://www.merkley.senate.gov/contact/, Oregon State Senator Ron Wyden at http://www.wyden.senate.gov/contact/, or President Barack Obama at https://www.whitehouse.gov/contact/.
One person alone advocating for change is not enough; it is through the word and work of many that change is carried out. Even if advocating for the increase of paid maternity leave (something that would benefit our nation as a whole with increased health, longer lives, lower national health care costs and lower child mortality rates, just to name a few), then find something you are passionate about and start talking to people about it. Write the people who can make a difference, and encourage those around you to also be the voice of change.
“I alone cannot change the world, but I can cast a stone across the waters to create many ripple.”