Why doesn’t the U.S. offer paid maternity leave?

The author, Jennifer Dolly, is a student in the spring 2011Women’s Studies Program Feminist Theory course at The University of Akron.

For a working mom-to-be, deciding when to go on maternity leave, for how long, and if she can afford it, can be very challenging.

Most employers in the United States do not offer paid maternity leave, so the mom has to research all of her options in order to figure out how long she can be gone and the amount of pay she will receive while she is away from work taking care of her newborn.

Having a baby is supposed to be one of the most exciting events in a woman’s life. Unfortunately, most working women in the United States face unnecessary stress when it comes to taking time off work to welcome their baby into the world and into their lives. They are faced with the difficult decisions of how much time to take off, how they can afford it, and if their job will be available upon their return.

How the U.S. compares to the UK

The United States has fallen well behind other developed countries in the area of paid maternity leave. Paid maternity leave is actually the norm in most developed countries. Mothers-to-be in the U.S. have to use a combination of short-term disability, sick leave days, vacation, personal days, or unpaid family leave, and all of this usually determines how much time the mother will have to welcome her baby before she returns to work.

The Family Medical Leave Act (FLMA) of 1993 guarantees only unpaid leave, up to 12 weeks. Mothers who receive short-term disability get only a portion of their pay, usually half or two-thirds of their normal earnings.

In the United Kingdom, women are entitled to 26 weeks of paid maternity leave, called Statutory Maternity Pay. The new mother receives 90 percent of her normal earnings, and she is entitled to this Statutory Maternity Pay no matter how long she has worked at the company. Fathers-to-be also get Statutory Paternity Pay that entitles them to two weeks of paid leave at 90 percent of their normal earnings.

Vive la difference!

The situation is different — and even better — in France. All women workers receive paid maternity leave, their job is protected during their entire leave, and the leave varies depending on which child the mother is giving birth to. If it is her first or second child, she gets to start her leave six weeks before she is due, and she can return 10 weeks after the child has been born.

If it is her third child, she gets eight weeks before her due date and 18 weeks after the baby has been born (and more time off is allowed if she is expecting multiple children or it is her fourth or subsequent baby). All of this maternity leave is mandatory.

She can also take a parental leave until the child is three year old, with a guarantee of the same or a similar job. France also provides high quality, affordable daycare because they believe, as a society, that preschool is important for developing a child’s vocabulary, communication, and social skills.

Why so behind?

Why is the United States so far behind other developed countries when it comes to paid maternity leave?

Unfortunately, I cannot answer that question, but I have a theory. Companies in the U.S. are too concerned about making money and not concerned enough about the welfare of their employees.

Why should a company pay a woman to sit at home for six months to recover from the birth of her child? Most companies are owned or run by males who cannot fathom the physical, emotional and psychological changes a woman goes through when she has a child.

What’s worse is they don’t seem to care.

Read more at MomsRising.org.


3 Responses

  1. You also hear much more about gender pay gaps in the countries with mandatory maternity leave pay. It seems that female workers of child bearing age are perceived as costing more to employ than other workers.

    So who’s ahead when you consider the unintended consequences of government mandates?

  2. @Kevin H : Is the gender pay gap in the US smaller or larger than in most european countries? Look it up! what are the figures on women participation in the job market of the US compared to UK/France/Belgium?

    I live in Belgium, we get about 15 weeks of paid maternity leave, and in some jobs extra leave if we breastfeed our baby. It’s not the employer paying this, it’s the (mandatory and cheap) health insurance, so apart from finding temporary replacement it’s not much of a burden to the company. We also get 4 months parenting leave per child (that is 4 months for mum plus 4 months for dad!), to be used before the child turns 12 (not mandatory, and can be used to work half-time for 8 months, of 4/5 time for 20 months as well, 3 months are paid, 1 is not (yet)). We also have affordable day care (you pay according to your income and how many children you have), and it’s tax deductible). All these measures are incentives for people (including women) to keep working after having children. Despite the gender pay gap, you’ll find that a much higher percentage of women keep a paid job outside the house after becoming a mother than in the US, simply because it’s manageable and affordable!

    PS In Sweden you get almost 1 year of paid maternity/paternity (yes, dads are also expected to stay home to care for their offspring) leave, and Sweden is a model country where gender issues are concerned…

  3. Your information on the UK SMP is incorrect.

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