Of Australia, Austria, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Ireland, Italy, Japan, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Portugal, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, the United Kingdom and the United States, the United States is the only country to not guarantee paid maternity leave, and we as Americans suffer immensely from this.
The Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993 — which dictates maternity leave policy in the United States and was put in place by former President Bill Clinton — was meant to help guarantee rights for new and expectant mothers. The FMLA is arguably one of the most progressive pieces of legislation passed in the United States in regard to health care prior to the Affordable Care Act passed under President Barack Obama. That said, the FMLA only covers women employed at large enough businesses (50 or more people employed within a 75-mile radius) for a long enough period of time (12 consecutive months) — leaving a whopping 40 percent of women uncovered for any sort of maternity leave. That means if you get a new job at a large corporation and become pregnant very quickly thereafter, the corporation is under no obligation to allow you to take time off and come back to work. Or, for example, if you are a seasonal worker, your “time of employment” may seem to need to be longer. For example, let’s say a woman works summers at Landscape Company X, May through September. The landscaping company employs enough people within a certain radius to the effect that she would be covered under FMLA otherwise. She has worked one summer in the past. This year, at the end of September, after working six months, she resumes her fall/winter job at Retail Business A, to then come back next May and work again at Company X. The woman gets pregnant at the beginning of June. She has been “employed” by Company X over the two years, but has only worked for X from May to September for two years (10 months, total) and one month of the next year. Because this totals only 11 months of actual employment, this woman would not be qualified for maternity leave under FMLA, despite the fact that she has worked for this company multiple times over what would be going on three calendar years.
I can’t be the only person who finds the concept of this lack of guaranteed stability during pregnancy and new motherhood to be terrifying. Defenders (and opponents, for that matter) of FMLA claim the private sector will step in to fill the gaps in coverage left by current policy, but clearly that’s not the case, given that companies such as Walmart and McDonald’s are now regularly, without shame, advising their workers to go on food stamps and seek welfare to cope with costs of living. I can’t imagine other large companies are champing at the bit to provide maternity leave or benefits to women they aren’t legally obligated to cover, either.
The World Health Organization recommends a minimum of six months of breastfeeding and the International Labor Organization advocates for 14 weeks of paid maternity leave for the health of both mom and baby, but many women are forced to return to work almost immediately after coming home from the hospital; even if their job isn’t at risk, women aren’t guaranteed any pay while away, and that lack of income can put a new family in ruin. As per usual with biases in U.S. law, minorities are disproportionately affected by the loopholes in FMLA, as they are more likely to be unemployed or underemployed as determined by the Act.
Not staying home long enough after giving birth is woefully harmful to both mothers and children alike. Most concerning, women who stay home less than six months after giving birth are significantly less likely to breastfeed successfully, and breastfeeding is shown to protect against childhood infections and chronic diseases. It has also been found to possibly prevent obesity (a problem already disproportionately plaguing minority communities).
Americans seem to forget that while not all of us can get pregnant, we all started off as babies at one point. Putting mothers and their children in peril puts every future American in peril. It’s time to step up and take responsibility for the future of our country, starting with basic and easy access to extended, paid maternity leave for all women.
Caitlyn Brennan can be reached at email@example.com.