The shocking reality of maternity leave in the US: 1 in 4 women take only 2 weeks off

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Two weeks. 14 days. That's the entire length of maternity leave that most American workers take when their child is born. And, it seems some of us are shocked by that fact. After all, we're all protected by the Family and Medical Leave Act, right? Since 1993, the FMLA has ensured 12 work weeks off in a 12-month period, but that doesn't sync up with the reality that nearly 25 percent of women are forced to return to work after two weeks.

hospital

(Photo Credit: ParentingUpstream/Pixabay)

Despite all the hubbub about new instances of companies offering paid leave to some workers, there's really no paid leave required for all. NPR covered the family leave debacle once again this morning, highlighting the fact that even those strides forward (the new parental leave, from Netflix, for instance) further demonstrates how far we really still have to go. (Netflix's new leave policy only covered the white-collar labor.)

It's shocking, yes, as the Washington Post proclaims, but, it's not really surprising. We've been talking about the realities of parenting, work, and leave benefits for decades. We know that the lack of paid parental leave in the U.S. is embarrassing, when compared with any other developed country, as NPR reported earlier this year. And, we know we need something, anything, but we're coming across ingrained road-blocks, which collude to make it impossible for a female employee to have any kind of reasonable leave expectation for maternity.

baby

(Photo Credit: ParentingUpstream/Pixabay)

Who's Got the Money?

While Netflix and Adobe are making headlines with their new offers to extend paid leave for parents, the reality is that only 13 percent of US workers have paid family leave. So, for the vast majority of workers, any FMLA leave they take is unpaid, or covered by any vacation and sick time that has been accrued.

Even unpaid, you might not be eligible to take the FMLA leave – depending on how long you've worked for your employer (at least 12 months) and also whether your company is covered (i.e., a private company with 50-plus employees, or a school or a public agency). Your choice, then, is simple. You can quit your job, try to stitch together some semblance of partial leave via sick time and vacation, or beg your boss (or HR Manager) for additional leave, likely unpaid.

And, here's another reality. Lower-paid, less well-educated women have it the worst; for example, Netflix is only extending the paid leave to white-collar employees. Not only are those female workers least likely to have paid vacation and sick time, but they are also not likely to benefit from paid leave.

It's Complicated

After all the realities of whether you're eligible or not, there's also the fact that some pregnancies and births inevitably end in a medical situation – nearly one-in-six pregnant women have complications of some kind. Although those complications don't usually lead to the death of the woman in the U.S., that might mean bed rest for the mother, preemie care for the infant, and a whole laundry list of other delays, medical visits, and worries. That's all on top of the birth.

Extending maternity leave is important for all workers, and not just as a recruiting strategy for the elite. It's really a matter of financial survival for many female workers.

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