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How America’s Lack of Paid Maternity Leave Worsens Inequality

Without access to paid maternity leave, many low-income mothers are forced to choose between their economic security and their health.
(Photo: 25543011@N00/Flickr)

(Photo: 25543011@N00/Flickr)

It’s one of our nation’s most depressing claims to fame, on par with our stunning guns per capita figure or gargantuan prison population: The United States is one of just three countries in the world that doesn’t guarantee paid time off for new mothers. Only 13 percent of American workers have access to paid family leave through their employers.

But as many times as I’ve read—and written about—such statistics, I confess I’ve never fully explored the obvious question: Without a federal family leave law, what exactly do American women do? Just how soon after having a child do they typically get back to the daily grind?

According to an analysis by Abt Associates of a 2012 survey it conducted for the Department of Labor, nearly one in four women who took leave to care for a new baby took only two weeks or fewer off.

That’s not information that any federal agency regularly collects, so it’s a little hard to say. A survey of women who gave birth in 2005 found that they took an average of 10 weeks total maternity leave—with 12 percent taking four weeks or fewer—and only 40 percent received salary compensation. But in a recent investigative piece at In These Times, journalist Sharon Lerner suggests that the post-recession picture may be even worse. According to an analysis by Abt Associates of a 2012 survey it conducted for the Department of Labor, nearly one in four women who took leave to care for a new baby took only two weeks or fewer off. About half of those women were back to work in under a week.

Lerner’s piece describes the experiences of a few of them. Natasha Long was back at her factory job within three weeks, getting up at 4 a.m. to pump breast milk before her 12-hour shifts. She developed symptoms of depression. Fearing that she wouldn’t be able to pay her mortgage, Tracy Malloy-Curtis, the primary breadwinner in her family, went back to work after five and a half weeks. Pus from an infection around her C-section wound was still dripping down her legs. Another recent article at RH Reality Check tells more equally awful stories: Erica Hunter begged her doctor for a note to return to her $12/hour job after two weeks so that she and her laid-off husband wouldn’t end up homeless. Seven days after giving birth, Alana Adams went directly from the hospital— where she was recovering from a C-section and postpartum preeclampsia—to spending 10 hours a day on her feet as an EMT.

What makes these stories so horrifying is the thread of almost Dickensian economic coercion running through them. Sure, some women may be able and eager to get back to a beloved career ASAP after childbirth—like Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer, who recently announced she’s having twins and plans to take “limited time away and [work] throughout” her pregnancy and delivery. Others who could technically take more time off may feel pressured by the 24/7 workplace culture at so many American employers to return sooner rather than later. But only desperate financial necessity drives someone to do so when they’re still bleeding from major abdominal surgery. Indeed, there’s a clear class divide between mothers who are forced to get back to work early and those who aren’t. In the 2012 survey Lerner cites, 80 percent of college graduates took at least six weeks off, while only 54 percent of those without college degrees did so.

It’s a reality that can be sometimes overshadowed when the conversation around maternity leave focuses on how much worse off all American women are compared to their counterparts in, well, nearly every other country in the world: The impact of our terrible federal family leave mandate does not fall evenly. And as elite employers—like Microsoft, Netflix, and Adobe, to name the latest—are increasingly competing for talent by announcing generous paid family leave policies, the disparity is destined to grow. Netflix’s new much-criticized two-tier parental leave policy—12 months for well-compensated, salaried employees on the digital side but just 12 weeks for the lower-paid, hourly workers shipping DVDs—reflects the reality in the U.S. economy writ large: We may be a nation of paupers when it comes to support for working parents, but there are still haves and have-nots.


That’s because, in an all-too-familiar dynamic in which the rich get richer, low-income workers are both less likely to receive paid leave and less able to make do without it. The dismal stat that only 13 percent of all U.S. workers have access to any form of paid family leave looks even worse when you consider it’s something heavily concentrated among the wealthy: More than 20 percent of the top quartile earners enjoy it, while only five percent in the bottom quartile do. Furthermore, low-income workers are also less likely to have other forms of paid leave—like sick days and vacation time—that they can save up and piece together to create their own de facto paid leave after the arrival of a child. While the vast majority of workers in the top quartile have such benefits, only about a third of those in the bottom quartile have access to sick days and only half get vacation time.

Low-wage workers are even disproportionately excluded from unpaid family leave. While the 1993 Family and Medical Leave Act theoretically guarantees all workers up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave to care for a new child or sick family member, it applies only to businesses with more than 50 employees, only covers workers that have been with their employer for at least one year, and doesn’t extend to part-time workers. These exemptions are significant; they ensure that just over half of American workers and less than a fifth of all new mothers are actually covered by FMLA. And they disproportionately affect low-income workers, who are more likely to work for small businesses, change employers frequently, and piece together multiple part-time jobs.

For all the media attention paid to a supposed trend of wealthy, highly educated women “opting out” of the workforce when they have a kid, the reality is exactly the opposite: Many low-income mothers are the ones forced out.

Of course, even if they do have access to unpaid leave, few low-wage workers can afford to voluntarily forgo a paycheck for a month or two to actually utilize it. In the survey mentioned above of women who had a baby in 2005, more than half of the respondents reported that they didn’t stay home as long as they would have liked and, of those women, more than 80 percent said they lacked the financial resources to do so. Indeed, research suggests that FMLA increases leave-taking only among the economically advantaged. Still, the law at least guarantees that workers have a job to return to in those cases when taking time off is not a matter of choice—and FMLA’s exemptions mean many poor women are without this basic legal protection.

So how exactly do low-income women manage to hold down a job while recovering from childbirth and/or caring for a new child? Well, many of them don’t. For all the media attention paid to a supposed trend of wealthy, highly educated women “opting out” of the workforce when they have a kid, the reality is exactly the opposite: Many low-income mothers are the ones forced out. According to the latest Census analysis of maternity leave and employment patterns between 2006 and 2008, nearly half of women with less than a high school education quit their jobs upon the birth of their first child; for women with a bachelor's degree or higher, that figure is under 13 percent. Less educated women were also four times more likely—10.9 percent compared to 2.7—to be let go by their employers when they had a baby.

Such job interruptions can have a long-term impact on earnings. Indeed, the fact that women are more likely than men to take time off, reduce their work hours, opt for positions with more flexible schedules, or quit work altogether to care for a child or another family member is a major contributor to the overall gender pay gap. Of course, lack of maternity leave isn’t the only factor making it difficult for low-wage workers to juggle child-rearing and a job. The lack of subsidized child care is another; it may simply not make economic sense to go back to work if you’re a minimum wage earner in one of the 28 states in which the cost of child care for two kids exceeds your annual earnings.

Even for those mothers who manage to hang onto their jobs, taking unpaid time off requires financial sacrifices—ones that are all the riskier for low-wage workers already struggling to make ends meet. “A third of them have to borrow money to get by. A third have to dip into their savings. A third put off paying bills. Many may be doing all three to get through those early weeks,” Bryce Covert explains in a recent Elle article. “Fifteen percent of those who don't get full pay when they take leave have to go on public assistance to get by. Perhaps it's little wonder that a quarter of 'poverty spells'—an episode of poverty that lasts two months or more at a time—begin with the birth of a child.”

Meanwhile, the women who rush back to work often pay with their own health—and that of their baby. Research has linked longer maternity leaves to a laundry list of improved health outcomes—from lower rates of maternal depression to higher rates of child immunizations and longer periods of breastfeeding. A 2011 analysis of data from 141 countries found that an increase of 10 weeks of paid maternity leave was associated with a 10-percent-lower neonatal and infant mortality rate. Given how few get time off, it’s not surprising that poor mothers in the U.S. have double the rates of post-partum depression, are half as likely to breastfeed for the recommended six months, and are more than twice as likely to see their babies die within the first year.

Research exploring the effect of state-paid family leave laws—in the three states that have passed them—provides further evidence that it’s the least privileged new mothers who are returning to work far quicker than they want to. An analysis of California’s program, which became the nation’s first when it took effect in 2004, concluded that, before the law, the most disadvantaged mothers—no college degree, unmarried, or black—took, on average, about one week of leave. Thanks to the program, that figure has increased to approximately four, five, and seven weeks, respectively. Meanwhile, the amount of leave taken by college-educated, married, and white mothers grew from three to five weeks to six to seven weeks.

In a 2007 article, health law expert Ann O’Leary, who is now a senior policy advisor to Hillary Clinton’s campaign, wrote simply: “In every major legislative action during the past forty years affecting the relationship between work and childbearing or childrearing, Congress has failed to recognize the impact its actions have on low-wage working women.” The result is that many low-income women who have a baby are forced either to sacrifice their health to maintain their family’s economic security or to risk their economic security for the sake of their family’s health. Either “choice” only deepens the ever-widening gap—in incomes, in health outcomes, in overall well-being—between the rich and the poor in the U.S.

The Gender Gap explores the persisting gender inequalities of the modern age and society's unwillingness to grapple with them.