FMLA 20 Years Later: Paid Maternity Leave Now A Rare Benefit

FMLA maternity leave

When Bill Clinton signed the Federal Medical Leave Act into law in 1993, it was hailed as a triumph for women and families. The FMLA permitted most workers to take three months of unpaid leave when seriously ill, or to care for a baby or sick relative. But 20 years later, optimism has been replaced with frustration as paid maternity leave in the U.S. is becoming even rarer.

The U.S., along with Swaziland, Liberia, and Papua New Guinea, are the only countries in the world that do not provide any paid maternity leave. And the number of American employers choosing to provide it as a benefit is dropping.

In 2005, 17 percent of American employers provided full pay for childbirth-related disability, but last year it was only 9 percent, according to a survey by the Families and Work Institute, and the Society for Human Resource Management, the country's largest human resources association. And increasingly, paid leave in the U.S. has become a perk for the educated class --- available mostly to workers with college degrees. Two thirds of new mothers with a bachelor's degree enjoyed some form of paid leave between 2006 and 2008, compared to just 19 percent of new mothers with less than a high school degree, according to a Census Bureau report.

While the recession made businesses more amenable to flexibility, the report finds, when it helps employees work more and better -- leaving for an hour during the day for a parent teacher conference, and working from home late at night-- they have turned away from paid extended leaves.

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Most Americans, on the right and the left, support the idea of paid maternity leave. In response to an exit poll by the National Partnership for Women & Families, 96 percent of Democrats and 72 percent of Republicans considered it very or somewhat important that the federal government consider new laws to keep families economically secure, including a system of family leave insurance.

But any attempt to pass such a bill has floundered. "There's always been hearings," says Carol Evans, the president of Working Mother magazine. "There's always been talk. There's been legislation pending and not passed, pending and not passed."

Only Two States Mandate Paid Maternity Leave

This is partly, advocates say, due to the American impulse to resolve these types of issues at levels lower than the federal government. But even states have failed to act. Just two states -- California and New Jersey -- have a system of paid maternity leave. In 2011, Wisconsin in fact passed a law banning any locality in the state from introducing mandatory sick leave, let alone leave for a new child.

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"Doing everything on the lowest possible level often trickles down to the individual," says Ken Matos, the senior director of employment research and practice at the Family and Work Institute, describing the American philosophy. "You are the manager of your own career, do what works for you."

Such thinking has prevented any major momentum around paid leave. It also doesn't help that the issue is increasingly becoming one of class. Americans with better educations and skills are more likely to end up at companies trying to keep compete for their talent, and so are more likely to receive paid leave, or be able to cobble together vacations, sick days, and disability for the time off.

Is Paid Leave Good For Business?

While advocates are pessimistic about the likelihood of a bill passing, they're still fighting for it. This time, the National Partnership for Women & Families is working with Connecticut Congresswoman Rosa DeLauro, to propose a family leave insurance policy. They're bracing for the expected attack: paid family leave is the enemy of business.

"For years before we passed Family and Medical Leave, there was an outcry that the U.S. economy would not survive," the Democratic representative wrote over email. "Not only did it survive, but it thrived."

Or as Vicki Shabo, the director of work and family programs at the National Partnership puts it: "I've never heard of a business going out of business because they'd have to comply with the FMLA."

More: 7 Part-Time Jobs That Pay Up To $40 An Hour

Advocates say paid leave is ultimately good for business. It helps new parents adjust to their new hectic lives, so they can return to work more seamlessly. It makes them feel more valued by their employer. It makes them work harder. It makes them more loyal.

And just because an employee is sitting at her desk a week after giving birth, they say, it doesn't mean it's better for the company's bottom line. "You can make them come in, but they're going to be distracted," says Matos. "They just had a baby! That's going to be a distraction!"


What Maternity Leave?




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cravincatchow

Mamoseley3, people would have the option for one parent to stay home, be it the mother or father, if wages earned by one were enough to support a family as they used to be. It's not necessarily by choice that people have others watch their children. The middle class, besides having shrunk, simply doesn't earn an amount that goes as far as it once did.

October 06 2013 at 2:30 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
mamoseley3

When I grew up, paid maternity leave was non-existent. Hubands worked and made the living and wives stayed home, had the children, and raised them themselves. No babysitters except on special occasions when parents went out to celebrate. My mother was ALWAYS at home when I came in from school. I can remember her standing at the ironing board (another bygone thing) ironing my frilly dresses. The smell of something cooking on the stove is a memory I still think of often. I enjoyed being a stay-at-home mom. I don't think it is fair to those who are working to have to train someone new to do the work of someone on maternity leave. And I don't agree with having babies for someone else to raise. No wonder our world is in such a mess. Parents leave the upbringing of their children to complete strangers. Who knows what kind of treatment their children experience while moms and dads are both working? Who knows what these strangers are teaching their children? I think when couples get ready to start their family, they should be ready to accept the responsibility of the mother-to-be staying home and being there for her children when they are born. It is unfair to children to be raised by strangers while their mothers are working. I think this is one of the things that is wrong with our nation today. Parents and children don't know one another.

February 07 2013 at 8:48 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
gardenpass

The real perk that is disappearing is a living wage.

February 07 2013 at 4:47 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
hobbs74

What's next? No more lunch hours? Or in most cases lunch 1/2 hours? Keep buying that GOP crud about how evil unions are and you'll see a lot more benefits than payed maternity leave disappear. Workers had better start organizing and quit buying into the bull about "evil unions". Its the only way workers can have even minimal input on how they are treated by management.

February 07 2013 at 2:02 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
manmi1

We are light years behind most other countries in so many ways.

February 06 2013 at 4:46 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
zdawn

jeez ow nothing about the baby? and what's in its best interests? That's who really needs a parent at home not being taken to a day care. That's how solid relationships are formed so we get healthy people who then are healthy citizens. Have we lost sight of the "bottom line" (humanity) for the almighty dollar?

February 06 2013 at 3:42 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
gmydogbud

On a job interview many years ago, was asked the following: Are you married, Do you have children, Do you intend to have more children? This was a non union company and this was the way of the world. This was a piece work type job and after many years of working, all employees were called to a meeting and were told that there would no longer be piece workwages; was sort of like Soit is said, so let it be written! Employers can and will do anything they like and you either have to stay after a life time of working for these companies or you have to find something else. Today there are no production jobs, as our government in it's wisdom has passed NAFTA - and turned it's back on American Workers!!

February 06 2013 at 2:42 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to gmydogbud's comment
cerealouslynow

I hate to tell you that the American worker turned its backs on their fellow workers long before NAFTA was even a dream. I saw it back in the 1960's and it may have started in the 50's when Americans started buying more and more foreign made products. By the time the 1980s rolled around many of us were starting to see the damage but could not stop the juggernaut of foreign products comming into our markets and the consumers that bought them. The American consumer remained blind to a growing problem and ingnored the facts. One of those key facts is that you cannot have American jobs wages and benefits at foreign prices. Now the problem is big enough for the "blind to see" but alas today we are paying for our own foolishness. All NAFTA did was grease the wheels of that juggernaut that was already in motion from the American consumer.

February 06 2013 at 6:44 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Cindy

We need to consider the great benefit to society to having nurturing parents. We can avoid all sorts of problems by allowing this bond between babies and parents.

February 06 2013 at 2:24 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
salemst

I believe most people are lucky to even have jobs.

February 06 2013 at 2:08 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
Raquel

This is an issue that will go around and around in circles forever. There are so many men and women for mandatory paid maternity leave, but there are also so many men and women against mandatory paid maternity leave.

My mother got two weeks paid for each of her 3 children. She went back to work immediately. She was lucky that she was able to leave all of us in the care of a relative (as opposed to a daycare).

I'm pregnant now and I'm lucky that I get two weeks paid maternity leave and two weeks vacation. I know not all women are so lucky. I am also lucky to have family members who can watch the baby while I work.

I think the issue with maternity leave is, where do you draw the line? Should a women be paid at all? Should she get more than two weeks off? Everyone has a differing opinion on this.

February 06 2013 at 9:52 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

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