For a country so taken with the idea of “family values,” the United States does a remarkably terrible job at helping people start families. We are the only industrialized nation that doesn’t have a law guaranteeing that new mothers receive paid maternity leave, and only 12 percent of women are granted paid leave by their employers. In most workplaces, paternity leave remains unheard of. Though it is technically illegal to fire workers after learning they are pregnant, it is very difficult to prove the cause of termination, and discrimination against pregnant and nursing employees persists. Nationwide Insurance employee Angela Ames, who was fired last year for taking time to pump milk during the day, was told by her supervisor, “just go home to be with your babies.” Yet in a mind-bending perversion of gender equality, Ames recently lost a sex discrimination lawsuit because judges pointed out that men can lactate too.
In the past two weeks, Mashable, The New Republic and Bloomberg Businessweek published in-depth feature stories about our profoundly flawed policies towards working mothers, two of which were penned by new moms who know firsthand how trying it can be to manage a career and pregnancy simultaneously. We expect women to work until the very end of their terms, take the least amount of time off possible and then return to and maintain busy careers while juggling the stresses of raising an infant. As Rebecca Traister put it at TNR, we are “a country that venerates motherhood but in practice accords it zero economic value.”
In recent years, some steps have been taken to address this fundamental hypocrisy. Several states pay mothers through their disability insurance, and California, Rhode Island and New Jersey all passed parental leave laws that offer new fathers and mothers up to six weeks of paid leave at a percentage of their regular paycheck. Though Congress has shown no interest in addressing maternity leave legislation, President Obama signed an executive order last month giving federal employees six weeks of paid family leave. But these piecemeal fixes leave many gaping holes. Here are five of the most insane facts about how maternity leave currently works in the United States.
1. The Framing of Our Federal Maternity Leave Policy Is Totally Arbitrary
The bedrock of our national parental leave policy is the Family and Medical Leave Act, passed in 1993 after a years-long battle with conservative legislators and business lobbyists who insisted the law would imperil American companies. The FMLA, which guarantees that companies with 50 employees or more provide new parents with 12 weeks of unpaid leave, is hardly a radical proposal. But as it turns out, it still fails to protect almost half of working moms in the U.S. One reason is that the law only applies to women who have been working at their company for at least a year. Part-timers, contracted workers and people employed at small companies are entirely left out.
Another fun fact about the FMLA: the 12-week number is completely arbitrary, as Mashable’s Rebecca Ruiz discovered. It is a purely political consideration, untethered from the advice of medical professionals or child development experts. When former congresswoman Patricia Schroeder first introduced the legislation back in the early ‘80s, she advocated for six months of time off for new mothers after consulting healthcare experts. But as the years passed and the Republican opposition refused to budge, the law was pared down to a shadow of its original form. According to Patricia Cole, director of government relations for early childhood nonprofit Zero to Three, “It was not determined by science, but political realities and negotiations.”
This remains the case despite a wealth of external evidence indicating that longer leaves have significant benefits for both parent and child. As Ruiz points out, “Babies whose mothers take more time are more likely to go to regular doctors’ checkups and receive immunizations. They are also more likely to be breastfed, which helps a baby develop immunity to dangerous and potentially deadly infections…Longer leaves may also be good for a mother’s mental health. A 2013 study of more than 800 mothers found that a longer leave of up to six months lowered the risk of postpartum depression.” As Claire Suddath reports for Bloomberg, there are economic advantages to extended leaves as well. Multiple studies have shown that women who take at least one month of leave after childbirth report higher salary increases a year later.
2. The Only Other Countries That Don’t Guarantee New Moms Some Form of Partially Paid Time Off Are Oman and Papa New Guinea
In many regards, the U.S. is years behind the rest of the world on adapting flexible parental leave policies. Most countries offer new moms at least three months of fully-paid leave, and many offer fathers parental leave benefits as well. In Europe, where leave policies tend to be particularly generous, many parents receive even more time. In Sweden, for example, new parents receive an astounding 480 days of paid time off, while German parents get 14 months. Our socially progressive neighbor to the north also has forward-thinking policies. Canada passed its first maternal leave law all the way back in 1973, and in 2000 it extended the amount of available paid leave from six months to a year, at 55 percent of parents’ salaries.
(Source: The New Republic)
This speaks to fundamentally different attitudes in how we value parenthood, both socially and economically. Though American politicians probably expend more breath talking about the importance of the nuclear family than those in any of the other countries mentioned, they don’t take the burdens parents bear seriously. As Joan C. Williams, founding director of the Center for WorkLife Law at UC Hastings College of the Law, told Mashable, “In the U.S. we have this weird attitude that having a baby is some private frolic like deciding to hang glide. And if you make that choice, you shouldn’t impose the cost on others. Other countries think of this differently and see it as raising the next generation rather than just another consumer choice.”
3. Our Maternity Leave Policies Exacerbate Economic Inequality
The Family and Medical Leave Act was supposed to be a blanket policy that would support mothers from all socioeconomic backgrounds in the weeks after childbirth. But the law’s specifics about company size and length of employment drastically reduce the pool of women who are qualified for unpaid leave. While full-time employees at companies with more than 50 staff members are covered, two out of five women of childbearing age are not. Female employees working in the most vulnerable, low-paid industries, from retail to food service, must return to work almost immediately after giving birth and risk losing their jobs entirely if they take a week or two off. Freelance, contracted and part-time workers are equally unprotected. These employees can’t afford to go weeks without bringing in an income, as women are the sole or primary breadwinners in 40 percent of households with children. A 2012 Department of Labor survey found that because of financial concerns, only half of the 59 percent of U.S. workers who are covered by FMLA end up taking time off.
Meanwhile, on the other end of the spectrum, business, management and technology companies offer very generous maternity leave policies. A Bureau of Labor Statistics survey found that 26 percent of “business, management, and finance” workers get paid leave—more than twice the national average. Facebook offers new parents four months, as does Goldman Sachs. Reddit, Google and Apple also provide at least twelve weeks off. What this means is that “the ability to adjust to parenthood, learn to breastfeed, and manage a newborn becomes a luxury only certain people can afford,” as Claire Suddath writes at Bloomberg.
4. Maternity Leave Policies Have a Profound Effect on Career Trajectories
Today, women comprise about 47 percent of the U.S. workforce, and they are delaying marriage and childhood until later in their lives. The average age for an American woman to have her first child is now 26, meaning that women’s peak earning years now coincide precisely with their peak childbearing years, as TNR’s Rebecca Traister notes. This has both immediate and long-term effects on women’s earning potential. According to the Bloomberg piece, there is hardly any wage gap for young men and women when they first graduate from college. But this gap widens as they get older, “and the first bump in the road seems to happen right as they start to have children.” Traister cites University of Massachusetts sociology research that found that “an American woman’s earnings decrease by 4 percent for every child she bears.”
The exorbitant cost of childcare and an enduring idea of the mother as primary caregiver also work to curtail the careers of many young moms. One woman interviewed in the Bloomberg article ended up quitting a job she loved because her earnings wouldn’t make up for the annual $25,000 she would need to pay in childcare, plus the cost of gas to get her to and from work. In these situations, it is often the mother who ends up leaving her career behind. According to a 2014 New York Times/CBS News poll of nonworking American adults aged 25 to 54, 61 percent of women said that family responsibilities were a reason they weren’t working, compared to only 37 percent of men. Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In puts the number of women with children who leave their jobs at 43 percent. The very practice of offering parental leave only to mothers reinforces the idea that parenthood is primarily a mother’s responsibility.
5. There’s Proof That Reforming Parental Leave Legislation Helps Families, But Congress Won’t Touch It
California, New Jersey and Rhode Island—the states that recently passed family leave laws—did not have an easy time of it. Just as Congress insisted that the FMLA would put American companies at risk, small-business associations and corporate lobbyists condemned these laws as anti-business. The California Chamber of Commerce referred to the legislation as a “job killer.” In a concession to their complaints, state lawmakers funded the law by taxing people’s paychecks instead of businesses and it passed in 2004. According to the Bloomberg piece, “A 2011 survey found that 91 percent of California business owners said the law either helped or had no effect on their profitability. The National Bureau of Economic Research found that California women in low-wage jobs were more than three times as likely to take some sort of maternity leave under the law, and returned to their old jobs in higher numbers.”
In light of such overwhelmingly positive results, one congresswoman is looking to bring maternity leave reform to the federal level. Back in 2013, New York senator Kirsten Gillibrand introduced the Family Act, which would offer new parents at every company three months of paid leave at 66 percent of their salary. It applies to fathers, adoptive parents and same-sex parents. Despite widespread popular support for paid family leave and the support of groups like the Small Business Majority and the National Partnership for Women and Families, the bill has remained stalled in Congress for over a year. And how come? According to Gillibrand, our overwhelmingly older, male Congress doesn’t really care about the issue. “Too many of the members of Congress were never affected by it. They’re not primary caregivers. Most members of Congress are affluent and are able to afford help or able to support their [wives].”