The State of Maternity Leave
3,120 new moms tell who gets it, who doesn’t, and what it’s really like during the time away from work
Who Gets What
In 1993 Congress passed the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), which allows parents in companies with 50 or more employees -- which covers just over half of the country's working women -- to take up to three months off after the birth or adoption of a child without losing their job. But the FMLA provides only for unpaid leave, so many families find it of little help, and those who work in smaller organizations have no guarantee that they'll still have a position after they return. What's more, women make up a disproportionately large percentage of temporary and part-time workers -- employees who are rarely eligible for benefits.
Those who aren't paid during their leave often save vacation and sick days to take some time off with compensation, according to our survey. Coworkers of Helen Stieben, a police officer in Tacoma, WA, helped finance all three of her maternity leaves. "Officers with more than one hundred fifty hours of accumulated sick time can give it to other officers in need," she says. Stieben put an ad in the police newsletter and received enough donations to take between two and three months off with pay when she had each child.
But the need for steady income sends many women back to work more quickly than they'd like. Two-thirds of respondents whose leaves were unpaid took only between one and five weeks off. "I had to get back to earn money to pay the rent," says Stephanie Outram, who returned to her 56-hour-a-week job at a convenience store in Spring Hill, FL, five days after giving birth.
Many women perceive a double standard as well: "A male coworker had a back injury that resulted in surgery, and he had to take off six weeks from work; my boss paid him in full," wrote a secretary. "I asked for paid maternity leave and was told no. When I compared my situation to that of my colleague, I was told that he didn't choose to hurt his back but I chose to get pregnant."
Stacey DuFord, a radio cohost in Dearborn, MI, discovered her company had changed its policy from paid to unpaid leave soon after the FMLA passed -- which turns out to be an unintended consequence of the legislation. "Since federal law requires only unpaid leave, the company didn't feel it had to shell out for it," she says.
Still, more than 50 percent of you say you were offered a paycheck during at least some of your time off, usually for between one and six weeks and funded through your employer's short-term-disability insurance. Large companies were significantly more likely to provide paid leave, but the type of industry also seemed to be a factor. The finance, insurance, and real estate sectors tend to be the most supportive of family policies. The least: wholesale and retail sales.
Your job level also plays a pivotal role in determining the nature of your leave. In our survey, those in managerial positions were two and a half times as likely to receive maternity benefits as hourly workers. The obvious irony is that those less able to scrape by without a paycheck are also the least likely to get one.
Policies may sometimes vary even within the same company, says Jodi Grant, director of work and family programs for the National Partnership for Women and Families, a nonprofit group based in Washington, DC. Julie Cunningham of Cincinnati was able to take a three-month paid leave when she was a staff coordinator for a consulting firm. Soon after her son's birth, she decided to take a step down to administrative assistant in order to avoid traveling. When she became pregnant in her new position, she was offered only six paid weeks of leave. "How much you got depended on who you were in the company and how much money you brought in," she says.