Wednesday, March 31, 2010
U.S. Maternity Laws Are A Sad State Of Affairs
Google "US maternity leave" and you'll find article after article with phrases like "dismal" and "among the worst." It's hard to believe that countries like Cambodia, Ethiopia, and Cuba could be more progressive than the United States on any level, but when it comes to parental leave rights, not only are they ahead, the U.S. is eating their dust.
These are not the only countries offering better maternal leave than the United States either. In fact, the U.S. is one of only two industrialized countries, the other being Australia, that does not provide national paid leave - although there are a few states which do so individually. However, even Australia manages to blaze ahead of us at the bottom, by providing mothers with one year of job protected leave. The U.S. Family and Medical Leave Act only allows for twelve weeks of job protected leave, and even that only covers mothers working at large companies (50 or more employees). Leading the pack on long parental leave laws are countries like Canada and Sweden, the latter of which provides a paid leave as long as 480 days and can be shared equally between both parents, enabling them to be with their babies through the entire crucial first year.
I ended up being one of the lucky ones. I worked for a small company with only six employees; therefore, I had no protection under the FMLA. However, my bosses being family-friendly were kind enough not only to allow me four months off but also pay me my full salary the entire time, something that is almost unheard of in the States. In addition to this, I am fortunate enough to reside in the state of California, one of just eleven U.S. states to maintain it's own Family Leave program. However, even California's program only pays for a meager six weeks at a reduced rate of your full income.
I had always fully planned to go back to work and place my daughter in daycare when my leave ended. However, after months of searching, my husband and I were unable to find affordable (i.e. less than my entire salary) daycare for an infant under two years of age. Most daycares in our area, we learned, do not even take children under 18 months, and those that do charge an arm and a leg due to the understandably demanding needs of a baby so young. Finally, we decided that I would stay home instead of going back to work - for the time being. This was certainly not an easy decision. For one thing, it is incredibly difficult financially to live on one salary on the costly Westside of Los Angeles. And then, of course, there was the fact that I had to give up the position I had enjoyed working for five years prior to my daughter's birth.
When I related my decision to stay home to my Swedish cousin (also a mother), she was skeptical of my choice, explaining that in Sweden there are hardly any stay-at-home parents. Thanks to their family leave benefits, most Swedish parents do not need to enroll their children in daycare (which is also government run) until they are around 15-16 months old. Not only are Swedish parents given over a year of leave, but they are paid generously as well: 80% of their current salary with a cap, or if they are not employed at the time of leave, they are paid a flat rate of 180 SEK per day. That's right, in Sweden you don't even need to be employed to qualify for paid parental leave.
A major argument for longer maternity leave in many European countries is that it will boost declining birthrates, a problem that has steadily increased since WWII throughout most of Europe. Certainly that case doesn't really apply in the United States, where the birth rates were at a record high three years ago, though recently they have taken a dip thanks to the recession.
However, I would argue that the case isn't merely for strengthening the numbers of our future generations, but more importantly for strengthening their quality as future employees, voters, consumers, and simply human beings. Longer maternity leave is not costly and wasteful spending as some might argue. In fact, if anything, it is an investment in the future of our society and the future of capitalism and democracy in general.
We rely on future generations to continuously supply the U.S. pool of workers, consumers, and -the big money word- taxpayers that help keep this great nation afloat. So then shouldn't we as citizens take an interest in ensuring that these future tax-paying sons and daughters are healthy, happy individuals by allowing them the stable, nurturing environment that they need and that only a parent can provide during the critical first year?
Looking at it from a merely financial basis, extended paid leave could in fact save companies money, according to this Forbes.com article, seeing as how it can cost some companies thousands of dollars to recruit and train replacements for professional women who decide to leave their jobs in order to stay home with their child. Paige DeLacey, head of talent for Landor Associates, explains, "women who receive good maternity benefits are more likely to return to their jobs and show loyalty to their employer."
Extended maternity leave also encourages long-term breastfeeding, which is beneficial to the health of both infant and mother. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that infants be breastfed for at least the first year of life. However, statistics show that most breastfeeding American mothers nurse their babies for less than six months. Scientific research has proven that the benefits of breastfeeding are numerous to both child and mother, from providing anti-bodies not replicable in formula to lowering the risk of breast cancer. According to the CDC, in 2004 (the most recent year listed for data collection) 74% of US moms breastfed their newborns, but by the time babies reached six months of age the rate dropped to 42%, meaning less than half of all American women adhere to the AAP recommendation. Obviously, there is a correlation between the amount of time spent breastfeeding and the amount of leave a mother is given. According to the findings from research conducted over several years by Ross Laboratories, a formula manufacturing company, returning to work has a significant impact on mothers continuing to breastfeed throughout the recommended first year.
Given the financial and health benefits of extended maternal leave, why is the United States so behind when it comes to this issue, with virtually no public debate about this sad state of affairs? In this 2005 USA Today piece, Jane Waldfogel, a professor at Columbia University suggests that the U.S. attitude towards parental leave has something to do with the differences in the European versus American feminist movements. According to Waldfogel, the European feminist movement "emphasized special treatment for mothers, including maternity leave and childcare." On the other hand, American feminists, she explains, "didn't want to hear anything about mothers. They wanted equal rights for women and didn't emphasize special treatment." Waldfogel goes on to suggest that American women have learned to live with only twelve weeks leave simply because it has been the norm for so long. It seems to me, though, based on the mothers interviewed for this piece, that while they may have accepted the dismal U.S. policy, they are certainly not happy with it.
Our counterparts in Sweden seem to have figured out the key to balancing work and family, so why can't we? I say it's about time for a new American feminist movement, one that demands better policies when it comes to the future of this country and our greatest national treasure: our children. We need to raise the bar for maternity laws, provide longer leaves, with at least partial pay and extended coverage to all mothers, not just those employed at large companies. After all, if twelve weeks unpaid is not good enough for Cambodian mothers, why is it good enough for us?