This Sunday is Mother’s Day, a day to celebrate the maternal figure or figures in your life that work non-stop and make countless sacrifices to better your life and support your endeavors.
If you’re having trouble thinking of ways to celebrate the moms in your life, just make sure that they know you appreciate and value them much more than the Department of Labor does:
Working mothers in the United States do not receive any paid maternity leave benefits.
“Now wait just a minute,” some of you are probably thinking. “My sister/neighbor/coworker took three months of maternity leave from her job and she still got paid. You’re making things up!”
Short of any imagined internal monologues of my readers, I’m not making anything up.
Yes, many companies do offer paid maternity leave for their employees, often up to twelve weeks. Some companies will even go so far as to offer paid paternity leave for new fathers, or additional sick days for parents to use while caring for their sick children.
Paid maternity leave has become somewhat of a given in Corporate America, and while the Family and Medical Leave Act guarantees new mothers twelve weeks of unpaid leave from their jobs, the fact remains that legally, an employer has no obligation to give any employee a paid leave of absence following the birth of a child.
“The United States is so progressive,” you may be thinking. “Surely we’re not the only country that does this.”
You are correct, at least in the aspect that the United States isn’t the only country to offer zero weeks of paid maternity leave. Specifically, it is one of three countries with this policy. The other countries are Papua New Guinea and Suriname.
I think it’s especially interesting to note that not only do most “developed” countries offer a minimum of 26 weeks of paid maternity leave (as does Iran, incidentally), but the countries we often consider part of the “third world” or associate with human rights atrocities – including Afghanistan, Libya, and North Korea – guarantee an average of 14 weeks of paid leave for new mothers.
“This is ridiculous!” you may be thinking. “What kind of employer wouldn’t offer paid maternity leave for an employee?”
Well, often the jobs in question are of the blue collar or minimum wage variety; considering our society doesn’t seem too bothered to care about protecting the rights and wages of low-income employees in the first place, this shouldn’t be surprising.
In addition to an absence of paid leave, pregnant women working in these environments often find themselves forced out of jobs unnecessarily, or denied reasonable job modifications that would allow them to continue working:
A pregnant retail worker in Salina, Kansas was fired because she needed to carry a water bottle with her to stay hydrated and prevent bladder infections.
A pregnant activity director at a nursing home in Valparaiso, Indiana was terminated because she was unable to complete some physically strenuous aspects of her job without assistance due to her high risk of miscarrying.
A pregnant delivery truck driver in Landover, Maryland had a lifting restriction, and was forced out on unpaid leave rather than given light duty.
Title VII protects a woman from being fired because she is pregnant; however, it does not prohibit termination for being unable to fulfill basic duties due to pregnancy, forcing many women to choose if they would rather risk their paycheck or risk their pregnancy.
“Well, of course the pregnancy should be a priority over a paycheck!” you may be thinking. “Money isn’t everything, after all. No need to be greedy and risk the pregnancy.”
Well, that’s an incredibly classist and condescending way to look at this, and I’m going to have to ask you to check your privilege.
“Fine, but why should women be guaranteed paid maternity leave?” you may be wondering. “Why should women get paid for months for not doing anything?”
First of all, if you consider what a new mother does during her maternity leave as “doing nothing” please leave your mother’s contact information in the comments section so I can send her the heartfelt Mother’s Day greeting that you clearly won’t be bothered to give her.
I am not a mother. I might be someday, but for now I am not, so I can’t pretend to have firsthand knowledge of any of this. That being said, I have read hundreds of articles and mommy blogs, and heard firsthand from mothers with an enormous variety of experience that motherhood is one of the (if not the) most difficult, trying, and thankless jobs in the world.
But it’s tough.
And while there’s probably much debate over whether the worst phase of parenting is the Terrible Twos or the Terrible Teens or the Terrible Twenties-and-still-living-in-our-basement, I’m going to go out on a limb and say the whole recovering-from-giving-birth-and-adjusting-to-an-entirely-new-human-being phase isn’t exactly a cakewalk.
The International Labor Organization standards state that women should be guaranteed at least 14 weeks of paid maternity leave, citing this time as “critical in enabling mothers to recover from childbirth and return to work while providing adequate care to their children.” Oftentimes when leave is too short, mothers may not feel ready to return to work and drop out of the workforce, which can create financial strain. Additionally, abbreviated maternity leaves have been linked to higher rates of caesarian sections and post-surgery complications, lower birth weights, failure to establish breastfeeding, and higher rates of postpartum depression.
“What about the bottom line?” you may be thinking. “How much will this cost, and how can businesses justify the spending?”
You mean besides the common human decency of allowing a pregnant person to earn a living?
“Yes,” you may be thinking. “How does paid maternity leave help the economy?”
There are workplace and public policies that plan for time off and income replacement in case of illness or injury. There are 401Ks and social security for when employees retire or can no longer work. It makes sense that there be a coordinated, uniform workplace and public policy that offers time off and at least partial income replacement when people, inevitably have children.
Paid Family Leave (PFL) would simply acknowledge and address a reality that directly impacts every business and therefore, should be planned for strategically, uniformly, and deliberately.
Furthermore, women in states with Temporary Disability Insurance and PFL programs are less likely than women in other states to receive public assistance or SNAP income following a child’s birth, particularly when they also take paid leave.
Paid maternity leave keeps a family financially stable, grows the economy, and decreases health care costs. It means better health for the mother and the child, and lowers the risk that public assistance will be needed for food, rent, or utilities.
Every “developed” nation in the world, not to mention others that are often considered “inferior” to the U.S. have found a way to make the practical and cost-effective public policy into reality. It’s time for the United States to catch up with the rest of the world.
Happy Mother’s Day to all my mom readers! Everyone else, don’t forget to thank your moms for everything they do.
Leave any questions or comments below, and see you next week!