Poor Maternity Benefits in U.S.

By Alexandra Smith

Infographic displays how many weeks of maternity leave other nations provide to new parents, as compared to the U.S. (Photo courtesy thinkprogress.org)

Infographic displays how many weeks of maternity leave other nations provide new parents, as compared to the U.S. (Photo courtesy thinkprogress.org)

Did you know that the U.S. has some of the worst maternity benefits in the entire world? The Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993 guarantees new mothers in the U.S. just 12 weeks of unpaid leave from their jobs, and exemptions apply to small companies, part-time workers, and those who have been working at a company for less than a year.

According to a May 2012 article on huffingtonpost.com, 178 countries around the world guarantee paid leave for working moms, and the only countries who don’t provide any type of financial support for mothers are “The United States, along with Papua New Guinea, Swaziland, Liberia, and Lesotho.” The article noted that mothers in Russia are guaranteed 140 days of maternity leave with 100 percent of their wages paid. New mothers in the United Kingdom are guaranteed 90 percent of their wages for 52 weeks after giving birth, and mothers in Sweden are guaranteed 420 days of maternity leave with 80 percent of their wages paid. The article also noted that Canada’s International Labour Organization gave the U.S. “a failing grade in providing women and new mothers support entering motherhood.”

An Aug. 2012 article on today.com noted that Google was losing women workers after they had babies. The author, Eve Tahmincioglu, stated that Google’s “attrition rate for postpartum women was twice that for other employees,” and in response, “Google lengthened its maternity leave to five months from three and changed it from partial to full pay. Attrition decreased by 50 percent.”

What’s really alarming about maternity leave in the U.S. is the fact that it’s associated with lower infant mortality rates. Jody Heymann, dean of the Fielding School of Public Health at the University of California was quoted in a Feb. 23 article on nytimes.com stating that infants receive more one-on-one care and “are more likely to be breast-fed, which lowers illness and hospitalization for infants and benefits women’s health.” Heyman was also quoted stating that “paid maternity leave yields economic gains in terms of reduced health care costs, reduced recruitment and retraining and improved long term earnings for women.”

Why is it that the U.S., a highly family-oriented country, is the only developed country to not offer a paid maternity leave program? Many U.S. mothers may think the amount of maternity leave they will receive will depend on their employer, and a number of other factors, but it shouldn’t matter where a woman lives or who she works for—she should be guaranteed time to take care of her baby without worrying about financial stress.

What really confuses me about maternity leave in the U.S. is the fact that the Family and Medical Leave Act was signed into law over 20 years ago. The Feb. 23 nytimes.com article noted that some lawmakers have proposed expanding the Family and Medical Leave Act “so that it covers more people either by reducing the required number of hours an employee must work to become eligible or by including smaller companies with 25 or more employees.” A blog post on nytimes.com mentioned that a group called MomsRising, created in 2006, was made to “bring important motherhood and family issues to the forefront of the country’s awareness,” and that it has helped to win paid family leave in New Jersey and Washington.

While, I think it’s great that lawmakers and groups like MomsRising are working to expand the Family and Medical Leave Act, I think progress should have already been made. I fully understand that having a baby is one’s own choice, but the fact that almost every country in the world offers paid leave for working mothers is just sad. The U.S. needs to get its “act” together.

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