America’s Struggle for Paid Maternity Leave

When it comes to maternity leave, American moms don’t have it easy. While new moms around the world get to enjoy weeks of bonding time with their babies—and still get paid—many American moms are rushing back to work. One in four return to their job within two weeks of giving birth, according to a report from In These Times.

The U.S. remains one of only two countries to not offer paid leave for new mothers, according to the International Labour Organization. The other is Papua New Guinea. (The Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993 offers up to 12 weeks off, but those are unpaid.) The fact is even more alarming when compared to countries like Bulgaria, which grants 410 days of paid leave and the U.K. where mothers get up to 39 weeks. These countries also offer some type of paternity leave.

Several states have stepped in to enact their own maternity leave laws, but nationally the struggle continues. “Lots of families are being put in situations where they are having to choose between being there for their family when they need them the most or their job,” said Molly Weston Williamson, a staff attorney at A Better Balance. The national legal nonprofit based in NYC has been fighting for work-family issues since 2006. That includes trying to establish a legal right to paid family and medical leave across the country.

Williamson stressed the problems that come along with America’s policy, why families need paid leave and the states that are making a difference.

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What are the issues with the Family and Medical Leave Act?
The FMLA provides a legal right [for men and women] to unpaid time off when they have some kind of serious heath condition, a close family member has a serious health condition or when they need to bond with a new child. For about the last 10 years, it’s also included the right to unpaid time off when a close family member is facing deployment in the military.

But the FMLA has two major limitations. The first is that it’s unpaid, which means if you can’t afford to take that time without your paycheck, it can be a real struggle. The second is the FMLA doesn’t cover everybody.

Who are the people not covered by FMLA?
Nationwide, an estimated 40 percent of American workers are not covered. Companies with fewer than 50 employees are not covered. You also have to have been working at the company for 12 months and for 1,250 hours…[It works against] vulnerable workers. For example, food service and hospitality, which includes a lot of low-income workers, has a pretty high number of employers who have fewer than 50 employees.

What about the states that have been stepping in?
We’ve recently seen several states pass laws to create a legal right to paid benefits when you need time off to bond with a new child or care for a seriously ill or injured loved one. California passed the first such law in 2002 and benefits began in 2004. They were followed by New Jersey, then Rhode Island. New York passed a really great law that also includes benefits in connection with a close family member’s military deployment. New York passed it in 2016 and benefits just began January 1 of this year. Washington state and Washington D.C. have also passed their own paid leave benefits laws, which they will start providing in 2020.

What’s so great about New York’s law?
The new state law means that almost everybody who works in the State of New York and doesn’t work for the government now has a right to paid job protective leave. It’s a real relief to a lot of people. It’s eight weeks right now but in a couple of years when the program is fully phased in it will be 12 weeks. Eight weeks is already more than [any other program in the country]…Unlike the FMLA, you usually only need to have been employed by your employer for 26 weeks, which is about six months. And in general there’s no minimum number of hours you need to have worked, so full-time and part-time workers are covered. And New York’s law has no minimum number of employees to be covered.

Why do you think more and more states are starting to enact laws now?
Now that we have a track record from those first few pioneer states, we’ve really been able to see what this looks like in practice. In different countries, there are different circumstances. But to be able to say we know how this worked in California, we know that this has really made a big difference for families, we know that the cost is affordable to run the program as an insurance system. Even though there were fears that there would be all these bad impacts on business, none of that has really played out.

Do you think we will see similar strides in the federal government anytime soon?
There’s been a lot of great progress and renewed attention to this issue at the federal level. There is a really great bill pending in Congress—the lead sponsor is New York Senator Gillibrand—called the FAMILY Act, which is really the leading federal proposal to create a paid family and medical leave law.

How does paid leave affect employers?
There is a large study out of California which has suggested that when workers can take paid leave that reduces turnover. For employers, if you have a good employee who you want, replacing them is not only a loss but it can be really expensive to do. But when people are able to take the short period of time that they need as leave and then come back to work, that’s actually saving them in the long run.

Does unpaid maternity leave harm women’s careers?
Women who don’t have paid leave are more likely to get pushed into lower paying jobs or to get pushed out of the workforce entirely. But women who are able to take paid leave after a child’s birth are more likely to be employed 9 to 12 months after the child’s birth than working women who took no leave. New mothers who took paid leave are also more likely to report wage increases in the year after the child’s birth.

Ultimately, what are benefits for mothers and even fathers to get paid parental leave?
When moms and dads can take the leave that they need, children are more likely to get their vaccinations and more likely to get their regular checkups because their parents can get them the medical care that they need. Children are more likely to be breastfed and to be breastfed for longer, which has all kinds of long-term and short-term health benefits. We also know that when women who are postpartum can take the leave that they need, it has important benefits for their health. For example, it reduces symptoms of postpartum depression. For dads, the ability to take a longer leave results in feeling more invested in their children and having a more rewarding experience. It’s a really important bonding time that pays off in their relationship with their children for the rest of their lives.

anna halkidis

anna halkidis

Anna Halkidis is a senior web editor at Long Island Pulse. Feel free to reach out at or on Twitter @annahalkidis.