In the U.S., the fight for women’s rights in the workplace has come a long way. In 1963, Congress passed the Equal Pay Act, protecting women’s rights to be paid equal wages as men. In 1978, the Pregnancy Discrimination Act was passed, banning workplace discrimination based on pregnancy. In 2015, King v. Burwell upheld the right for women to receive contraception from their employers through the Affordable Care Act.
Slowly, but surely, America progressed towards greater protection of women’s rights to equal pay, motherhood, and good health. Nonetheless, the majority of working women in the U.S. must sacrifice at least one of these rights if they choose to become mothers. Unlike the rest of the world, the U.S. risks new mothers’ health and financial security by not requiring paid maternity leave.
In the U.S., only four states—California, New Jersey, Massachusetts, and Rhode Island—offer publicly funded paid maternity leave. For women that don’t live in these four states, the only way to receive any kind of paid maternity leave is to work for a company that offers it as a part of its benefits package. Elite employers like Google, Microsoft, and Goldman Sachs offer generous paid leave as a way to attract and retain top female talent; but these are rare exceptions, not the rule. The vast majority of working women in the United States are faced with a binary choice after giving birth: either take unpaid time off and risk financial insecurity or go back to work without taking any time for post-birth recovery.
From a global perspective, this dependence on the private sector to provide paid maternity leave is truly an anomaly. According to the 2014 statistics from the International Labor Organization, the United States and Papua New Guinea are the only two countries in the world that offer no legal protection of paid maternity leave. On the opposite end of the spectrum, all working women in Sweden are entitled to 14 weeks of paid leave, during which they receive a whopping 80 percent of their salary. In the Netherlands, new mothers are entitled to 16 weeks of paid leave, during which they are paid 100 percent of their salary.
Thus, with the U.S.’s current policy, or rather the lack thereof, single and lower-income mothers are thrown under the bus. For these women, taking unpaid time off topples their families’ economic stability. Therefore, given no other choice, they prematurely return to work without an adequate postpartum recovery period. RH Reality Check tells some horrifying stories: in order to make ends meet, Elle Kay returned to work with a third-degree tear from her clitoris to her cervix. After taking a mere seven days of recovery from a C-section and postpartum preeclampsia, Alana Adams returned to work spending 10 hours a day on her feet as an EMT.
Sadly, this is old news. Over the course of many years, numerous researchers and health organizations have found that the lack of paid maternity leave exposes new mothers to postpartum depression, clinical stress, and suboptimal breastfeeding at a higher rate. Additionally, a laundry list of negative health defects plagues lower-income working mothers, who tend to work more physically strenuous jobs.
However, major opponents to paid maternity leave look at it not as a medical necessity but as a business cost. Smaller scale companies and businesses argue that they simply cannot afford to pay workers that are not working. Therefore, they argue, mandated paid leave would discourage these employers from hiring and promoting women because of the added cost. In a recent op-ed published by the Huffington Post, a Republican presidential hopeful Carly Fiorina argued that yet another government mandate on small and community businesses would drive the American economy down.
Yet in 2011, California’s Center for Economic and Policy Research conducted a study on its state implemented paid maternity leave program and found diametrically different results. The study concludes: “The business community’s concerns prior to passage of the [Paid Family Leave (PFL)] legislation, that it would impose extensive new costs on employers and involve a particularly serious burden for small businesses, were unfounded. After more than five years’ experience with PFL, the vast majority of employers reported that it has had minimal impact on their business operations.” 91 percent of employers—including small businesses—replied that the program had either a positive or no effect on profitability and overall business performance.
Instead, small businesses may even qualitatively benefit from providing paid maternity leave. In her recent article, Mary Ellen Slater, the CEO of Reputation Capital, a five-person content marketing agency, stated that providing paid maternity leave required her company to budget, cross-train, and plan ahead. By doing so, the company emerged with stronger management and higher efficiency. Most importantly, Slater noted that the company’s paid maternity leave policy was much more cost-effective than trying to replace the employee.
However, the situation is different for businesses that employ low wage workers. Lower wage jobs tend to require less training and have an inelastic labor supply, a combination that makes the cost of providing paid maternity leave dramatically higher than the cost of simply replacing pregnant employees. Merely encouraging private provision of paid maternity leave will not guarantee it for all working women; rather, many lower-income women will continue to face the difficult choice between prematurely returning to work or risking financial insecurity and unemployment.
At the very core, the issue shouldn’t be about costs; it should be about social welfare. With a dearth of federally mandated paid maternity leave, the United States tells women through its policies to choose between their right to work, to have children, and to maintain their health. If the current state continues, access and protection of all three of these basic human rights will remain a luxury for women in the American workforce. Therefore, the most effective provision of paid maternity leave for all working women will require a law that protects their rights to receive it.
Workers’ rights are not guaranteed because they increase business profits. They are guaranteed because protection of all workers from exploitation, discrimination, and unsafe working conditions are deemed important and just. The issue of paid maternity leave is a similar test of our values, and it’s time to act on this issue as a collective society.