FMLA 20 Years Later: Paid Maternity Leave Now A Rare Benefit

FMLA maternity leave

When Bill Clinton signed the Federal Medical Leave Act into law in 1993, it was hailed as a triumph for women and families. The FMLA permitted most workers to take three months of unpaid leave when seriously ill, or to care for a baby or sick relative. But 20 years later, optimism has been replaced with frustration as paid maternity leave in the U.S. is becoming even rarer.

The U.S., along with Swaziland, Liberia, and Papua New Guinea, are the only countries in the world that do not provide any paid maternity leave. And the number of American employers choosing to provide it as a benefit is dropping.

In 2005, 17 percent of American employers provided full pay for childbirth-related disability, but last year it was only 9 percent, according to a survey by the Families and Work Institute, and the Society for Human Resource Management, the country's largest human resources association. And increasingly, paid leave in the U.S. has become a perk for the educated class --- available mostly to workers with college degrees. Two thirds of new mothers with a bachelor's degree enjoyed some form of paid leave between 2006 and 2008, compared to just 19 percent of new mothers with less than a high school degree, according to a Census Bureau report.

While the recession made businesses more amenable to flexibility, the report finds, when it helps employees work more and better -- leaving for an hour during the day for a parent teacher conference, and working from home late at night-- they have turned away from paid extended leaves.

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Most Americans, on the right and the left, support the idea of paid maternity leave. In response to an exit poll by the National Partnership for Women & Families, 96 percent of Democrats and 72 percent of Republicans considered it very or somewhat important that the federal government consider new laws to keep families economically secure, including a system of family leave insurance.

But any attempt to pass such a bill has floundered. "There's always been hearings," says Carol Evans, the president of Working Mother magazine. "There's always been talk. There's been legislation pending and not passed, pending and not passed."

Only Two States Mandate Paid Maternity Leave

This is partly, advocates say, due to the American impulse to resolve these types of issues at levels lower than the federal government. But even states have failed to act. Just two states -- California and New Jersey -- have a system of paid maternity leave. In 2011, Wisconsin in fact passed a law banning any locality in the state from introducing mandatory sick leave, let alone leave for a new child.

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"Doing everything on the lowest possible level often trickles down to the individual," says Ken Matos, the senior director of employment research and practice at the Family and Work Institute, describing the American philosophy. "You are the manager of your own career, do what works for you."

Such thinking has prevented any major momentum around paid leave. It also doesn't help that the issue is increasingly becoming one of class. Americans with better educations and skills are more likely to end up at companies trying to keep compete for their talent, and so are more likely to receive paid leave, or be able to cobble together vacations, sick days, and disability for the time off.

Is Paid Leave Good For Business?

While advocates are pessimistic about the likelihood of a bill passing, they're still fighting for it. This time, the National Partnership for Women & Families is working with Connecticut Congresswoman Rosa DeLauro, to propose a family leave insurance policy. They're bracing for the expected attack: paid family leave is the enemy of business.

"For years before we passed Family and Medical Leave, there was an outcry that the U.S. economy would not survive," the Democratic representative wrote over email. "Not only did it survive, but it thrived."

Or as Vicki Shabo, the director of work and family programs at the National Partnership puts it: "I've never heard of a business going out of business because they'd have to comply with the FMLA."

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Advocates say paid leave is ultimately good for business. It helps new parents adjust to their new hectic lives, so they can return to work more seamlessly. It makes them feel more valued by their employer. It makes them work harder. It makes them more loyal.

And just because an employee is sitting at her desk a week after giving birth, they say, it doesn't mean it's better for the company's bottom line. "You can make them come in, but they're going to be distracted," says Matos. "They just had a baby! That's going to be a distraction!"

What Maternity Leave?

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