There are only three countries in the entire world without mandatory paid maternity leave policies… Unfortunately, the United States is one of them (the other two are Swaziland and Papua New Guinea).
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, only 14% of all private sector workers receive any form of paid parental leave. The other 86% are left with the small consolation offered by the Family Medical Leave Act which Congress passed in 1993. That law does mandate up to 12 weeks of unpaid, job-protected leave per year without loss of their health benefits during the leave. But even that minimal protection comes with qualifications—the company must have more than 50 employees, the employee must have been with the company for at least a year and have worked at least 1,250 hours during the 12 months prior to the leave.
Contrast that with the protections offered in other developed nations. Sweden with one of the world’s most generous programs lets parents take up to 480 days of leave for each child, usable at any time until the child is 8 years old. Bulgaria offers 410 days (45 prenatal and 365 post-birth) with the National Health Insurance Fund paying 90% of their gross salary. In Iceland both parents receive 80% of their salary for three months after the birth or adoption.
The initial budget proposal from the Trump administration includes a provision calling for six weeks of paid parental leave. That’s a far cry from the situation in the 1940s when the Department of Labor’s Women’s Bureau recommended that all pregnant women stop working six weeks before their due dates and for two months after. There was no mention of how the expectant mothers should make up for that lost income.
So while the Trump proposal does represent a vast improvement over the current situation—where one Department of Labor study found that 25% of women return to work within two weeks of giving birth—it still leave the U.S. trailing the rest of the world.
As anyone who has gone through the experience knows, having and raising children is hard work. The lack of clear and equitable policies around parental leave and childcare is likely one of the factors behind why so many women, at least among those who can afford to, choose to stay at home with their children. For many individuals the path of least resistance is to put off resuming one’s career until after the children are old enough to look after themselves.
The Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics suggests that between 2015 and 2016 there was a decline of close to 11% in re-entries to the U.S. workforce, and if you couple that number with the almost 17% of workers voluntarily quitting their jobs, you can see there’s a serious problem here. Since it costs on average approximately 1.5 times an existing worker’s salary to hire and train a replacement, if you quickly do the math, you can see losing so many skilled workers is a costly proposition. If we’re talking about executives in the $100K salary range, that could mean as much as $20bn in extra costs just to fill the existing roles.
We still have a long way to go in this country on the issues around work and parenthood, as a recent segment on CNN showing how the US matches up to the rest of the world when it comes to looking after our most important assets – our workforce—clearly shows. Mothers are forced to go back to work early against their own wellbeing, because without sensible parental leave policies they have no choice. No matter what your financial circumstances or how much help you have, no mother is ready after 6 or 8 weeks to return to work. Medical, societal AND workplace wellbeing all demand better parental leave policies.
In her groundbreaking book, Lean In, Sheryl Sandberg suggested that as many as 43% of highly-qualified women leave their jobs to have kids. The loss of that level of experience and the intellectual capital that goes along with it strongly suggests that choosing motherhood not only thwarts a woman’s career pursuit, fulfillment and earning power but also heavily blocks corporations from recruiting and retaining top talent.
That failure to retain top talent due to the complications of parenthood can be extremely costly for companies since it costs an estimated one-and-a-half times an existing employee’s salary to hire and train a replacement.
And it’s not only costing the employers money. When returning mothers decide the time has come to pick up their careers, they end up paying, what NYU Professor Paula England calls “a motherhood penalty,” in terms of lower wages and fewer career advancement opportunities.
England’s research also found that while all women pay the price, the toll is highest, as much as 10% per child for highly-skilled, high-wage women. The evidence suggest that their penalties are highest because when some of these women lose experience to childrearing, by dropping out or shifting to part-time work for a short time, they lose the steep wage growth they would have enjoyed had they worked continuously.
It’s also interesting to note, as a recent commentary on Slate pointed out, that “38 percent of the persistent gender wage gap in the U.S. is due to ‘pure discrimination’ related directly to traditional gender roles.” This discrimination affects not only parents, but young women who may have no intention of bearing children, but whose employers fear that someday they may become pregnant.
No wonder so many millennials are choosing not to have children or to abandon their careers if they do.