Paid maternity leave a pipe dream for most Americans

Paid maternity leave a pipe dream for most Americans

Midway through her pregnancy, Ms Katie Freeman began to worry about how the family would support itself when she went on unpaid maternity leave.

The 26-year-old is a cafe general manager and her husband is a full-time student with a part-time job. The options were either for her to keep her leave short, or for him to suspend his studies and find a full-time job, neither of which was satisfactory.

As a last resort, last month, Ms Freeman asked her boss at Laughing Planet Cafe in Oregon, where she has worked for close to four years, for some paid leave.

She was pleasantly surprised when she was told the company would change its policy and offer 12 weeks of paid parental leave.

"This will help with hospital bills, rent and living expenses. It also means my husband can continue with his education and work just part-time," said the happy mother-to-be.

Ms Freeman is one of a lucky few in this country.

While most working mothers in Singapore take as given that they will get four months of paid maternity leave, only 12 per cent of American workers in the private sector, and 16 per cent in state and local governments, have access to any kind of paid family leave.

The United States is one of only two countries - the other being Papua New Guinea - that does not mandate paid maternity leave. It relies on the Family Medical Leave Act, which grants up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave a year for those in full-time jobs and in companies with 50 or more workers.

Raising hopes that changes may be on the way, President Barack Obama last month proposed that federal workers be given six weeks of paid parental leave. He also proposed a US$2.2 billion (S$3 billion) fund to help states create paid leave programmes.

Only California, New Jersey and Rhode Island now have such a programme. In California, the first state to come up with one in 2002, parents get up to six weeks off at 55 per cent of pay, capped at a maximum of about US$1,100 a week.

Still, it remains to be seen if the US will ever have a law for paid maternity leave. Historically, the country has never been in favour of such programmes.

"A greater emphasis on individualism and a reluctance to accept collectivism is embedded deeply in our political culture," said public policy professor Steven Wisensale at the University of Connecticut. "The belief is that families should address their own needs as much as possible and government should not intervene in family matters such as maternity leave," he said.

This explains why a 2013 Bill aimed at giving parents three months of paid leave at 66 per cent of their salary, subject to a maximum cap, is languishing in Congress.

Most mothers currently resort to cobbling together annual leave and sick leave or taking no-pay leave to spend time with their newborns.

Ms Jeannine Sato, 41, who lives in North Carolina, did a combination that gave her six weeks when she had her first child eight years ago.

"Six weeks was not enough time, but they said come back or risk being fired," she told The Sunday Times.

"I'm the breadwinner in the family... and I felt I had to choose between my baby and my livelihood," said Ms Sato, who was an executive at a large non-governmental organisation at the time.

Activists worry especially about the low-income who, they say, cannot afford being unpaid for any length of time.

Supporters say providing maternity leave makes sense for the economy at large by ensuring women do not drop out of the workforce.

The business lobbies, of course, do not see it this way.

The California Chamber of Commerce (CalCham), for example, drew a link between paid family leave and the higher cost of doing business.

Ms Jennifer Barrera, CalCham policy advocate, said that when employers of all sizes are burdened with administering these programmes, it "inhibits their ability to conduct business and grow jobs in the state".

Labour lawyer Liz Morris, deputy director of the Centre for WorkLife Law at the University of California, disagrees. In the states with paid leave policies, she said, "most businesses report that the programmes have had no adverse effect on their profitability, and many reported a positive effect on profitability, turnover, and morale".

One often-cited example is Google. When the company increased paid maternity leave from 12 to 18 weeks in 2007, attrition among new mothers dropped by half.

"Providing maternity leave allows companies to retain women while reducing employee turnover and absenteeism," said Ms Morris.

Ms Freeman's boss Franz Spielvogel, chief executive of Laughing Planet Cafe, which has 270 staff, found that making the right move also paid dividends in terms of customers' goodwill.

"I'm very surprised by it frankly. What I thought was a very small step in the right direction appears to be quite a big deal," said Mr Spielvogel.

This article was first published on Feb 2, 2015.
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