Behind The Times: Where Is Paid Maternity Leave For American Moms?
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By Live By Surprise, Featured DM Blogger - March 22, 2015

Fotolia_60910523_XS.jpgThe debate in this country has started to heat up again.  More and more women and men are starting to point out that we’re supposed to be living in one of the most educated and rich countries in the world and yet thinking around working while raising children is back in the dark ages.  It was even highlighted in Barack Obama’s 2015 State of the Union address

This past week, you may have read about an multi-national corporation called Vodaphone who’s making a bit of a stir by offering all of their employees at least 16 weeks of paid maternity leave.  In addition, they’ll be offering flexible work hours to employees returning from leave.  All employees.  Including Americans.

According to the International Labor Organization (ILO), an agency of the United Nations, the United States and New Guinea are the only two countries out of their members that provide no cash benefits of any kind to women during maternity leave.

The ILO also sets a basic standard for maternity benefits:

  1. 14 weeks minimum maternity leave;
  2. Reimbursement for at least two-thirds of their previous earnings; and
  3. The benefit should be paid almost entirely through public funds.

The US is the only developed country on the planet that doesn’t guarantee any paid maternity or parental leave to workers.

Our country is the only developed nation to meet not even one of the ILO’s benchmarks. Compare that to the U.K., Australia, and our neighbors to the North, Canada, which each allow for a full year off (though not all of it is paid).  Mexico, the US’s neighbor to the south, gives mothers 12 weeks of paid leave, reimbursed at 100% of their salary.  Even Iceland pays mothers on maternity leave for 13 weeks.

In the US, unless you live in one of three states that mandate it (California, New Jersey and Washington), you don’t have access to paid leave.  Forward thinking companies like Vodaphone (and Google, Facebook and Yahoo, who each offer up to five months paid leave to their employees) are in the minority.  Only about 16 percent of employers offer the benefit to their employees here.  America has the smallest population of women eligible for paid maternity leave among all of the developed countries.

Enacted in 1993, the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) was supposed to be a starting point – it was intended to be the minimum required leave.  Don’t get me wrong, FMLA was a significant achievement – but somehow, our progress as a country slowed significantly after the legislation was enacted. It's like we got there - and just gave up.  There's so much more work to do.

FMLA mandates 12 weeks of job-guaranteed leave for caregivers. All you’re entitled to after your leave is to get your job back.  If you work for a small company, you’re not even guaranteed your job back. That’s wonderful if you work for a big company and can afford to take off 12 weeks unpaid.   

Job protection is not enough.

Some companies, like Vodaphone and the others listed above are starting to understand that happy employees makes economic sense.  Much more sense than replacing the new mothers at a cost of somewhere between 50 and 200 percent of a worker's salary.  According to the New York Times, when Google lengthened its fully paid maternity leave from three months to five, attrition fell by half.  Like Google, a Washington Post article suggests that Vodaphone designed their new maternity leave policy with talent retention in mind. 

Economically – it makes sense for our country to make sure that our workers are paid well – it increases our tax base and makes us richer and happier.  The economic benefits to the country were listed in a recent report to congress.  Paid leave allows workers to avoid having to choose between caring for their families and keeping their jobs. 

Paid Leave Will Increase Our Wealth, Health and Development

A multitude of economic studies both inside and outside of the country have shown that access to paid family leave significantly increases the likelihood that workers will return to their jobs instead of dropping out of the labor force or spending time out of work to search for a new job.  As an outcome, this is important.  If workers are more likely to maintain their pre-leave wage level if they stay with the same employer in the longer term, their earnings will increase.  By improving paid leave, we can improve the long-term financial security for many disadvantaged groups that cannot afford to take unpaid leave - and have a beneficial effect on our own economy. 

Recent research on California’s paid leave policy has found that making paid leave more broadly available has especially helped minority women, those with less education, and unmarried women.  It helps their children get a strong start – having a positive impact on their children’s health and development, and even affecting their long-term educational and earnings outcomes.

Roughly 90 percent of businesses surveyed as part of the Center for Economic and Policy Research’s Leaves That Pay Report said that paid leave either had no impact or a positive impact on productivity, performance, turnover and morale. It also didn't result in companies being short-staffed - only about 6 percent of employees took off each year.

Despite the fact that study after study shows  that early bonding with parents sets children up for long-term health and well-being, companies like Google and Vodaphone are in the minority here in the US.  As advanced as we are economically and technologically, our country is behind the times when it comes to supporting families after the birth of a child.  

The message is this:  paid leave and supporting new mothers returning to the workforce can only increase our wealth as a nation.  Not only in terms of dollars and cents – but also in terms of education and health.  We need to start changing the conversation.  FMLA was a great starting point – but we need to restart the stalled engine.  We need to start convincing congress – and employers – that paid leave is not only beneficial, it’s key to our development as a nation. 

Americans need paid maternity leave. 

America needs paid maternity leave.

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