United States Maternity Leave Policy is Third World
Fox News pundit blasts colleague for taking maternity leave, calls it a “racket.”
Having a child is one of the most stressful times in a woman’s life but, it is often a time when working mothers are met with the most resistance and adversity in the workplace. The dispute ignited between Fox News Host Megyn Kelly and her colleague Mike Gallagher over her maternity leave has brought this topic into the public spotlight.
When speaking with Fox News Sunday anchor Chris Wallace in a May radio interview about the possibility of Kelly taking three months of maternity leave, Gallagher made the biting response, “What a racket that is.” He continued, “That's unbelievable. Do you think you'd get three months off when - how much time did you get off when your kids were ...”
The term “racket” seems to imply that Kelly and other women, according to Gallagher, are taking advantage of their employers in order to care for their children in the first year of life, or worse, that women might get pregnant just to get an extended vacation, paid or unpaid.
Upon her recent return from her “racket,” Kelly fired back, “The United States is ‘in the Dark Ages’ because it's one of the rare industrialized nations that doesn't require companies to provide compensation for employees on maternity leave.”
According the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) enacted under former President Bill Clinton in 1993, employees are provided up to 12 weeks of unpaid, job-protected leave per year as well as the maintenance of health benefits during leave.
FMLA does not apply exclusively to women but is extended to care-givers for various reasons, among them the birth of a child as well as the adoption or placement of a foster child within the employee’s household.
While the FMLA was and is a step in the right direction for the U.S., most Americans can neither afford to go without 12 weeks of their salary nor are they employed by the larger companies to which FMLA applies.
According to the Act, “The FMLA applies to all public agencies, including state, local and federal employers, local education agencies (schools), and private-sector employers who employed 50 or more employees in 20 or more workweeks in the current or preceding calendar year.”
If you work for a company that employs less than 50 employees, then you would have to ask what kind of maternity or “family” leave to which you are entitled by your contract. Many small companies do not have any leave allocated specifically for parental leave but will allow employees to use vacation, personal or sick time, which may or may not be paid.
"Despite its enthusiasm about 'family values,' the U.S. is decades behind other countries in ensuring the well-being of working families," said Janet Walsh, deputy director of the women's rights division of Human Rights Watch. "Being an outlier is nothing to be proud of in a case like this."
What the U.S. has right now is a policy of unpaid maternity leave available under an exclusive set of conditions. What the U.S. lacks is a nationwide policy of paid maternity leave, according to an investigation by HRW, based in New York.
The report by HRW, "Failing its Families," revealed that little or unpaid leave contributed to delays in infant immunization, postpartum depression, ending breastfeeding early and the accumulation of debt.
Reporting at least 178 countries have national laws guaranteeing paid leave for new mothers, the HRW investigation revealed that only a few countries remain in the Dark Ages -- the U.S. among such Third World countries like Swaziland and Papua New Guinea. More than 50 nations, including most Western countries, not only guarantee paid leave for new mothers but also new fathers.
Sweden was among the most generous. There, mothers receive a paid parental leave for 14 weeks and father receive eight weeks to bond with baby. The Human Rights Watch cites two states that have been successful in implementing paid-leave programs offered to both men and women — New Jersey and California. Employers surveyed report that these programs, financed through employee tax contributions, have had a positive effect on productivity and employee morale.
The FMLA is also designed to protect an employee’s job upon return to the companies to which it applies. In a “fire and hire” at-will state like Pennsylvania, though, employers do not have to provide a reason for termination or could cite other reasons when an employee returns from work, thereby by circumventing the intention of the law.
Many women experience either a reduction of hours, layoff or the total derailment of their careers postpartum. Although the discrimination toward new mothers might seem obvious, proving it is often a difficult and costly endeavor, taking years of litigation. It’s just easier and more cost-effective to get a new job.
"Leaving paid leave to the whim of employers means millions of workers are left out, especially low-income workers who may need it most," said Walsh, citing federal estimates that only 10 percent of private-sector workers have paid family leave benefits.
The HRW report cited that, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, only 11 percent of civilian workers and 3 percent of the lowest-income workers have paid family leave benefits. Kelly was among the fortunate who could either afford to take the time off, was paid for the time off or was employed by a large company to which the FMLA applied.
"Around the world, policymakers understand that helping workers meet their work and family obligations is good public policy," Walsh said. "It's good for business, for the economy, for public health and for families. It's past time for the U.S. to get on board with this trend."
The U.S. needs to get out of the Dark Ages and follow the lead of the other 178 countries that guarantee some form of paid family leave.