The Cost of Poor National Maternity Leave Policies

The New York Times published a graphic over the weekend that is currently making the rounds on social media showing paid maternity leave policies in every country in the world.

The striking thing about the graphic for American readers is that the USA is among only a small handful of countries, all of which are tiny and impoverished, that does not legislate any paid maternity leave. In the US, paid maternity leave is considered a job benefit and companies decide how much, if any, to offer. Americans are allowed up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave through the Family and Medical Leave Act during which time employers are required to hold the employee’s job but there is no requirement for compensation during that time. After 12 weeks, there is no requirement that the employee remain employed.

As a point of reference, Canada requires that employers allow women to take a full year of leave and compensate them for at least 26 weeks. This comparison is striking and goes a long way toward understanding the current wage gap between women and men in America.

The comparison between America and the rest of the world is illustrative of the country’s attitude toward work and working. For whatever lip service companies give to the idea of work-life balance, work ultimately is supposed to trump everything else.

I was recently talking to a woman who was getting ready to tell her employer about her first pregnancy. Her company was generally a very good one for employees. She received help for her graduate school tuition from her employer and it did a lot of things that indicated that the employer was invested in its workers’ futures.

On the subject of maternity leave, however, it was decidedly less flexible. She was entitled to 6 weeks of paid leave and an additional 6 weeks unpaid. She didn’t know of anybody who had been able to negotiate for more paid leave because, as a pregnant woman, it would be next to impossible for her to find a new job and her employer knows that.

Therefore, she has the choice between going back to work 6 weeks after giving birth (assuming she is able to work right up until the birth date) or take a hit to her income at the exact moment that she needs it the most. Many women in the country don’t even have the 6 week buffer and must make the decision about returning immediately after giving birth.

While this may seem like a great deal for employers, in reality it has negative effects for them too. Employees are most useful to employers when they are able to throw themselves into their work. In order to be efficient, at least the majority of the employee’s brain must be focused on the tasks at hand.

If a woman is returning to work only a few weeks after giving birth, it is unlikely she is going to be able to do this. Instead of being able to focus on writing her quarterly report, she is likely going to be worrying about her newborn’s childcare or how she is going to be able to duck out of the staff meeting to pump breast milk. If she had a cesarean section, she is likely to be still physically recovering from the surgery.

In addition to the developmental and emotional advantages to more generous leave policies for families, companies also reap benefits. In addition to regaining a better, more focused, employee when she returns a few months after giving birth instead of a few weeks, companies also regain a more loyal employee.

When a woman feels like her employer is trying to nickel and dime her out of every day, she is likely to remember that treatment down the line when she is asked to go above and beyond in her job. Employers may hold all the cards when a woman is pregnant but she will not be pregnant forever. In order for women to value their employers, they have to feel like their employers value them and their families.

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