Going Back Too Soon

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Perla Saenz went back sore and exhausted just four weeks after giving birth—and two weeks after the incision from her C-section reopened. (She had heard her older child cough in the night and instinctively tried to pick him up, forgetting for a moment her doctor’s warning against lifting anything heavier than ten pounds.) Weak and sometimes feverish, she often found herself clutching the counter for support.

Bernadette Cano was back on the job five weeks after giving birth. Though she was in better physical shape, she wasn’t ready to be apart from her son. “I was thinking about the baby all the time,” she told me tearfully from the break room of Walmart, where she worked in the dressing room. Under normal circumstances, she enjoyed the job tidying up the dressing rooms and returning clothes to the racks. But with her newborn son at home, she couldn’t think of anything else and even broke the company policy against texting so she could check in with her family.

These women, just two of dozens I’ve interviewed in my research on parental leave, are far from alone in having inadequate time off. While many people think of three months as the typical length of maternity leave (perhaps because mothers often need at least that long to recover from birth), the majority of working mothers in the U.S. are back at work before three months is up: More than a quarter are at work within two months of giving birth, according to the latest census data, and one in ten—more than half a million women each year—are back at work in four weeks or less. Some go back to work just a few weeks—and sometimes days—after giving birth.

It’s easy to think we’ve solved the problem of maternity leave. After all, the Family and Medical Leave Act, which became law 20 years ago today, gave workers time off to care for a newborn or newly adopted child, sick relative, or their own illness. Today, as we celebrate its anniversary, we can—and should—celebrate all that this first major piece of American family policy has done. Workers have used the FMLA more than 100 million times since 1993 to care for their loved ones or themselves while holding on to their job and, often, their health insurance.

But the FMLA leaves almost half the workforce uncovered. Saenz, for instance, wasn’t entitled to the time off because the law excludes workplaces that employ fewer than 50 people, a category into which her employer fell. Another huge loophole exempts workers who have logged fewer than 1,250 hours in the past year, or who have worked for less than a year. Unfortunately, the workers who aren’t covered by the law tend to be lower-income workers, who need the help the most. Only 39 percent of those earning less than $20,000 a year were covered by the FMLA, as opposed to 74 percent of those making more than $100,000, according to the Department of Labor. And of those who are covered, higher-income workers are far more likely to get pay from their employers while on leave, according to data just released by the Department of Labor.

In addition, because the FMLA guarantees only unpaid leave, many who are entitled to leave can’t afford to take it. Technically, Cano, for instance, was entitled to the full 12 weeks off. (Walmart, of course, employs more than 50 people, and she had worked there more than a year.) But she feared she would foreclose on her recently purchased home if she went any longer without a paycheck. According to the new DOL report, nearly half of workers who needed leave but didn’t take it said they couldn’t afford to take the time without pay. Nearly one-fifth (17 percent) said they didn’t take time off because they were worried they might lose their job.

By the time we passed the FMLA in 1993, Americans were virtually alone in not providing workers time off when they truly needed it. Now, 20 years later, the U.S. has become even more of an international outlier in not providing paid family and medical leave. When Australia passed a law in 2010 granting new parents 18 weeks off with pay, the U.S. became the only industrialized nation without paid maternity leave. In fact, at this point, all but three countries in the world have surpassed us by providing paid leave to new mothers. Even poor countries such as Djibouti, which provides 14 weeks off with pay; Afghanistan, which provides 12 weeks off with pay; and the Democratic Republic of Congo, which is the poorest country in the world and provides 15 weeks off with pay, have figured this out.

For the sake of hundreds of thousands of new mothers heading back to work before they’re ready, it’s time to play catch up. A few states have started. California passed a paid family insurance law in 2002, New Jersey followed suit in 2010, and Washington passed a similar law in 2007, though has yet to implement it.

Happily, the push for paid family and medical leave is under way in other states, including New York and Massachusetts. But what we really need is a federal law that provides mothers—and fathers, and all who need it—with pay to go along with their time off from work.


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