Maternity leave: U.S. lags far behind other industrialized countries

Talk show host Mike Gallagher recently called maternity leave Photo: Fox News

WASHINGTON, August 21, 2011 — I have not birthed a child. I have not witnessed a birth in real life. I have not seen the aftermath of pushing a small human from a woman’s body.

In this respect, I am like most men.

However, I hope most men don’t line up behind conservative talk show host Mike Gallagher, who earlier this month called maternity leave - the time many women take away from their jobs immediate before and after the birth of a child to prepare and recover - a “racket.” (See video of Kelly and Gallagher’s exchange at the end of this column.)

Gallagher’s comments were made in relation to the three-month leave Fox News anchor Megyn Kelly took after the birth of her second child, a daughter. 

When Kelly brought Gallagher onto Fox News for a showdown about his comment, Gallagher showed his further ignorance by saying, “Do men get maternity leave?”

Yes, Mr. Gallagher, under federal law, we do not discriminate by gender for unpaid leave related to illness or the birth of a child. In fact, in many countries people are expected, encouraged, and rewarded for taking it.

Maternity leave is a term for a specific type of leave granted under the Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993. According to the U.S. Dept. of Labor, “FMLA applies to all public agencies, all public and private elementary and secondary schools, and companies with 50 or more employees.

“These employers must provide an eligible employee with up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave each year for any of the following reasons: for the birth and care of the newborn child of an employee; for placement with the employee of a child for adoption or foster care; to care for an immediate family member (spouse, child, or parent) with a serious health condition; or to take medical leave when the employee is unable to work because of a serious health condition.”

Sounds like a great thing, but wait, not so fast.

The U.S. remains the only industrial nation that does not mandate parents of newborns get paid leave.

Instead, unpaid leave is only required for those working at large businesses. A vast majority of businesses in the United States, more than 97 percent, according to 2010 Census figures, are small with less than 100 employees. A great majority of those businesses have less than 50 employees, and small businesses hire more than 50 percent of U.S. workers, thus making more than half of U.S. workers not eligible for FMLA.

For the lucky few who work at companies large enough to be required to follow the FMLA standards, they are guaranteed that “upon return from FMLA leave, an employee must be restored to the employee’s original job, or to an equivalent job with equivalent pay, benefits, and other terms and conditions of employment.”

However, the obvious financial incentive is for those men and women to return to work sooner than the 12-week maximum. The Bureau of Labor Statistics said only 11 percent of U.S. workers have paid family leave benefits. (This was not broken down by gender.)

In 2007, the most recent year statistics were available, four in ten women giving birth were single, making their income the only income. Those who do have male partners in the baby’s life may find that while the fathers are willing to help financially, they are unable to because of a downturn in our economy that has disproportionately put men out of work, again leaving new working moms with the full responsibility. Employed fathers who do step up find themselves the sole wage earner in a nation where dual income is not just the standard but often times the necessity.

Without assistance in the first few weeks and months after the birth of a child, mothers are almost forced to return to work, sometimes earlier than medically advised.

No maternity leave?

Add to that the U.S. Department of Labor reported in 2010 that full-time employed moms earn only 72.5 percent of what men do, and you can see how working mothers continually feel economic pressure to return to work, even if the same work equals lower pay. Full-time employed women without children make 87 percent of what men do.

So it’s also not surprising that many women and men avoid taking FMLA time at all.

According to the U.S. Department of Labor, only 22 percent of those eligible for FMLA take leave time. Many employees instead substitute their paid vacation days or sick days for FMLA leave in order to retain a steady income while they recuperate or adjust and care for the new child.

But America isn’t alone in failing to offer paid leave for the birth of a child. It stands with Swaziland, Papua New Guinea, and a few Third World nations.  What a bunch.

Around the rest of the modern, post-industrial world, men and women can take paid leave for months or sometimes years.

Janet Walsh, the deputy director of the Women’s Rights division of Human Rights Watch, said earlier this year that the U.S. is decades behind 178 other countries across the globe that guarantee paid leave for new mothers and more than 50 nations that guarantee paid leave for new fathers.

In Greece, where austerity measures have capped almost all social welfare programs, mothers still have 119 days of paid leave at 100 percent of their annual salary.

If Mr. Gallagher is really worried about equality with leave, and still wants a paycheck, Iceland allows for nine months of maternity/paternity leave that is divided into thirds with three months reserved for the mother, three months for the father, and the remaining three months for the parents to divide as they see fit. Each parent receives 100 percent of their typical annual salary during their leave.

In Sweden, mothers and fathers can split 480 paid days between then until the time the child is eight years old. Sixty of those days are specifically allocated for the father who receives 80 percent of his salary during his leave.

Human Rights Watch, in a recent report, said that serious and harmful consequences result from the pressures put on new mothers or fathers by unpaid leave. One consequence that stuck out was an early end to breastfeeding, often around the time the mother returns to work weeks after the birth.

Doctors recommend breastfeeding throughout the first two years of a child’s life, according to the World Health Organization. Another consequence identified was the heightened propensity for postpartum depression, a condition that has also been the target of harsh attacks in recent years.

Why does it seem that things that are female-only experiences make for easy targets for disregard, disbelief or stinging attacks by men? The idea that almost every other country values the experience of birth and bonding between parents and children more than the U.S. does makes me a little less proud to be an American.

While this is the broad policy of the land, some states are more progressive when it comes to family leave time. California and New Jersey, for example, offer six weeks paid leave for family or medical needs through a public insurance program financed by small employee payroll tax contributions.

At the end of Kelly’s confrontation with Gallagher, she pointed out the shortcomings of the U.S. system and the greater propensity for women to suffer depression if they return too quickly to work after a baby. Kelly said because her employer was generous, she was able to take paid leave.

To that, Gallagher responded, “You should be a happy camper.”

Should she? I would argue that she shouldn’t be happy, and neither should the rest of us until American women have the same maternity leave as do the women in such countries as Iran, Iraq or Afghanistan, all entitled to paid leave.

More of Amanda Leigh Brozana’s work can be found at betweenxandy.blogspot.com. She can be reached via email atbetweenxandy.brozana@gmail.com. Her work appears in Smart Living in the Communities at the Washington Times.

 


 


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Amanda Brozana

Amanda Leigh Brozana is the Communications Director for the National Grange.  She is from Orwigsburg, Pa., and now lives in Washington, D.C. 

Earning her B.A. in Communication Studies from Wilkes University in 2004, her M.A. in Journalism from the University of Mississippi in 2005 and completing her doctoral work in communication at the University of Alabama in 2008, Amanda reclaims her title as a former journalist, focusing on a variety of issues, including the difference between men and women, that she taught classes on as a college professor.

Contact Amanda Brozana

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