The Working Mother 100 Best Companies set the bar for paid parental leave, but nationwide, too many new moms still have to choose between caring for a newborn and holding down a paycheck. Working Mother’s new campaign for universal paid parental leave aims to change that.
One of these things is not like the others: Mongolia, Chad, Mali, Cuba and the United States. if you guessed the United States, you’re right—but not for the reason you’d expect. What sets us apart from the others isn’t our economic power or global political clout, but rather our lack of universal paid leave for new mothers, offered by 178 nations around the world, including some of the poorest.
“The U.S. is the only high-income nation not to have paid maternity leave, while almost all middle- and low-income countries offer it, too,” says Jody Heymann, founding director of McGill University’s Institute for Health and Social Policy and author of Raising the Global Floor: Dismantling the Myth That We Can’t Afford Good Working Conditions for Everyone. The exceptions include Swaziland, Papua New Guinea—and us.
As advanced as our nation is economically and technologically, it remains dismally behind the times when it comes to supporting families after the birth of a child. Numerous studies show that early bonding with parents sets children up for long-term health and well-being. “All aspects of adult human capital, from workforce skills to cooperative and lawful behavior, build on capacities that are developed during childhood, beginning at birth,” states a 2007 report from the National Scientific Council Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University.
And yet only about half of all first-time moms in the United States are able to take any paid leave after childbirth; and just a fifth of working women with young children receive leave with full pay, according to a review of the most recent Census data by the Washington, DC–based advocacy group National Partnership for Women & Families. Nor is the situation getting better. A Families and Work Institute report found only 16 percent of the companies it surveyed offered fully paid maternity leave in 2008, down from 27 percent in 1998.
Working Mother is launching a four-year campaign to improve matters. Our goal is ambitious: to ensure paid parental leave is available to all U.S. workers by 2015, our 30th anniversary year. “This campaign is essential to the health of all working families,” says Carol Evans, president of Working Mother Media. “It’s also critical to the economic health of our companies and our nation. Our ability to compete in the global marketplace depends upon the energy, intelligence and commitment our mothers and fathers bring to the workplace every day—qualities that are built on a strong family foundation.”
The 2011 Working Mother 100 Best Companies agree. Every one of them offers paid maternity leave, while 76 percent also provide paid paternity leave and 79 percent offer adoption leave.
At Chicago-headquartered law firm Katten Muchin Rosenman, for instance, birth moms can take up to three months off at full pay and dads get two weeks. And although any type of paid leave for hourly workers is rare nationwide, Wyndham Worldwide, the hotel and hospitality group, gives hourly associates who’ve been with the company at least six months at least four weeks of paid maternity leave. Depending on length of service, some get even more.
By investing in children from the outset, these companies help create a healthier, better-adjusted society. “We’ve much to learn from them,” says Evans. “It’s time for the rest of the country to follow the lead set decades ago by the Working Mother 100 Best Companies.”
The Case for Paid Leave
When the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) was enacted in 1993, it was intended as a start to parental leave, not the sum total of our country’s efforts. FMLA mandates 12 weeks of job-guaranteed leave for caregivers. That’s nice if you can take it—but many parents can’t because FMLA is unpaid. In addition, small companies are exempt, and employees who’ve been in a job for less than a year or work fewer than 24 hours a week are also out of luck.
Workers in two states have it better: California and New Jersey both offer paid-leave programs that cover birth, adoption, foster placement or leave to care for a sick immediate-family member. “Both states have set up what’s basically a social-insurance system, like unemployment insurance,” says Bob Drago, research director of the institute for Women’s Policy Research in Washington, DC, “and it’s 100 percent funded by employees.”
Even better, the cost to employees is minimal: totaling only pennies to a few dollars a month, depending on the employee’s salary. In California, moms and dads can take up to six weeks off at 55 percent of their salary, with a maximum weekly payout of $987. In New Jersey, parents can take up to six weeks off at a max of $559 a week. In both cases, businesses don’t pay a nickel for these programs.
In fact, despite business-community concerns that family leave would hurt productivity, a recent report on the situation in California from the Center for Economic and Policy research (CEPR) in Washington, DC, found that fear unrealized. Roughly 90 percent of businesses surveyed as part of CEPR’s Leaves That Pay report said that paid family leave either had no impact or a positive impact on productivity, performance, turnover and morale. Nor did it result in companies being short-staffed: only about 6 percent of employees took off each year.
What’s more, some companies even saw cost savings. In California, 60 percent of employers surveyed said they saved money because employees used state family leave instead of employer-aid sick leave, vacation time or disability benefits, according to CEPR.
Given their early success, policies like these may become more common. Washington State passed paid-family-leave legislation in 2007 (although it has yet to be implemented); and Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New York and Oregon each have had similar measures under consideration in recent years.
Far from being a job killer, paid leave is a wise investment. Infants (and their sleep-deprived caregivers) benefit enormously when there’s time to establish healthy routines.
Take breastfeeding. Numerous studies have linked it to a host of positive health impacts, from a stronger immune system for babies to decreased breast cancer risk for moms. “For infants, it lowers illness and death rates 11- to 5-fold in the first year,” says Jody Heymann. In California, the median duration of breastfeeding doubled for women who took paid family insurance, according to Leaves That Pay.
For Alexis Hambrick, 34, director of marketing operations for Turner Broadcasting in Atlanta, the 12 weeks of paid leave (eight fully paid weeks of maternity leave and four weeks of PTO) allowed her to start breastfeeding her son and to stick with it when he began having digestive problems. It turned out Charlie, now 20 months, had a dairy sensitivity. All Alexis had to do to get him back on track was cut dairy from her own diet. “If I hadn’t been on leave, I might not have had the time to figure out what the problem was and how to fix it,” she says. “Being able to check out of work completely and focus on my son made all the difference.”
By contrast, mothers who don’t get paid maternity leave are more likely to give up breastfeeding early, delay childhood immunizations and experience financial hardship and postpartum depression, according to Failing Its Families, a recent report from Human Rights Watch.
Paid maternity leave doesn’t just benefit mom’s and baby’s health. It also improves the odds of women returning to work. “First-time mothers who take paid leave tend to leave work earlier in their pregnancies and return to work later after childbirth than those who are able to take paid leave for the birth of a child,” says Portia Wu, vice president of the National Partnership for Women & Families.
In fact, women use maternity leave not only to bond with their babies, but also to establish new routines that will allow for a successful return to work. Stacey Strandberg, 39, a senior VP wealth advisor and mom of four (5-year-old Ashley, 3-year-old twins Ava and Danny, and 15-month-old Tristan) remains one of the star performers in Morgan Stanley’s Red Bank, NJ, office because each of her fully paid maternity leaves (three months for her first two and four months for her third) allowed her to “learn the ropes” of her growing family.
Where do we go from here?
The Working Mother 100 Best Companies keep a close eye on their competition. And today their competitors are all over the world—in Japan, the United kingdom, Germany, India and China, which all offer paid maternity leave. The first step is to join them. The second, according to Carol Evans, is to allow women the flexibility to design a leave plan that will work best for them and their employer. Consulting firm McKinsey & Co. already does this.
After polling colleagues in the firm’s women’s network about what length of maternity leave had worked best for them, Susan Charnaux-Grillet, 34, a Washington, DC–based associate principal, took off “exactly the amount of time I wanted, six months, enough to get used to being a mom.” (She did it by combining the firm’s paid 14 weeks with vacation and unpaid time.) Catherine, now 19 months, is thriving, and so is her mother. When Susan came back from leave, she was ready to resume top-notch work.
And in April, she was promoted.
Help Us Help Working Mothers Nationwide
Join Working Mother’s fight to make paid parental leave universally available to U.S. Workers by 2015, the 30th anniversary of the Working Mother 100 Best Companies. It’s easy to get involved—just sign our online petition.