The number of new mothers receiving paid maternity leave climbed to a majority for the first time, the U.S. Census Bureau reported today, reaching the highest percentage since the government began tracking the data in 1981.
The increase reflects changes in the female workforce, with older, better-educated mothers using benefits as well as protections under the 1993 Family And Medical Leave Act to support their families.
Family-rights advocates noted that the landmark law only guaranteed job security, not paid maternity leave, and doesn’t cover mothers who work at places with fewer than 50 employees. Dana Visse, a 37-year-old mother, was laid off from her job as an urban planner for a small firm in Portland, Oregon, in January, three months after having her second child.
“From a business standpoint, I understood it,” said Visse, who put together a financial survival plan that included sick leave, vacation time and a disability insurance policy. “But it still seemed pretty backward.”
The U.S., Swaziland and Papua New Guinea are the only countries that don’t require some form of paid maternity leave, according to a February report by Human Rights Watch, a New York-based advocacy organization.
Still, the census numbers showing 50.8 percent of new mothers got paid leave represent significant progress since the early 1980s, when 37.3 percent of them took paid time off. Advocates said the report may be overstating the progress by including standard employer benefits, such as sick leave and vacation time, as part of paid maternity leave.
“We need to put this into perspective,” said Ellen Bravo, executive director of Family Values@Work, a family advocacy network, in a telephone interview. “We’ve made progress, but we still have an essential problem to solve.”
Older mothers, full-time employees and college graduates were most likely to take paid maternity leave. Two-thirds of first-time mothers with a college degree were able to do so; less than 19 percent of mothers with no high school diploma took paid leave, the census survey found.
The Census Bureau followed 3.4 million first-time mothers who worked while pregnant from 2006 to 2008, using its Survey of Income and Program Participation, a series of polls that collect household economic data.
‘Leading Cause of Poverty’
The survey also found that two-thirds of first-time mothers worked while pregnant, with 8 of 10 doing so in their last month of pregnancy. More than a fifth of new mothers quit their jobs, with 16 percent doing so before a birth and another 6 percent leaving less than three months afterward.
Half of all first-time mothers without a college degree quit their jobs during their pregnancy; about 13 percent of college-educated women quit, the government reported.
“That’s a very significant concern,” Kristin Rowe- Finkbeiner, executive director of MomsRising.org, a Bellevue, Washington-based advocacy group, said in a telephone interview. “Having a baby is a leading cause of poverty spells, and the people who need that time are least likely to have access to it.”
Human Rights Watch said in its February report that the nation’s failure to require paid maternity leave contributes to delayed immunizations, post-partum depression and economic problems for families.
Leave Act Impact
Under the 1993 medical leave law, companies with more than 50 employees are required to offer as much as 12 weeks of unpaid leave to pregnant women. California, New Jersey and Washington have passed laws providing partial paid maternity leave. President Barack Obama has asked Congress for $23 million to help establish employee-paid state disability funds that would cover the costs of maternity leave, similar to the mechanisms used in California and Washington.
Bravo said paid maternity leave would keep employees in the workforce. Businesses pay an average of $5,500 to fill a minimum-wage job and 150 percent of annual compensation to fill the average salaried job, she said.
“It would be convenient for a lot of businesses if no one got pregnant,” Bravo said. “But it would be extremely inconvenient for society. So we just have to figure it out.”
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