The State of Maternity Leave

by Jeannie Ralston

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

Karen Hirsh’s first maternity leave, five years ago, went as smoothly as she’d hoped. She tied up loose ends, which her boss appreciated, and a coworker handled all of her ongoing projects during her 15 weeks (6 of them paid) away from the office. “I felt so supported in my transition to being a first-time mom,” says the Wayne, New Jersey, pharmaceutical executive.

Four days into Hirsh’s second, 12-week leave almost two years later (half of which was paid), the colleague who was to take on the bulk of her work left unexpectedly, which meant Hirsh had to scramble to run things from home. “I worked twelve to fifteen hours a week — that’s a lot when you’re exhausted and not sleeping,” she says.

Her third leave, in 2000, was the hardest. She was still with the same company but had a new boss who didn’t assign anyone to cover her accounts. The result: She felt compelled to work 20 to 25 hours each week at home during her time off, and she cut her leave short, returning after two months instead of three.

In many ways, Hirsh’s experiences mirror the findings of Parenting magazine’s recent national survey on parental leave. The 3,120 readers who responded — 98 percent of them moms — paint a picture of vast inconsistency. Some of you were paid during your leave; some weren’t. Some of you were even fired for taking time off to be with your newborn. Many described supportive, satisfying experiences, but more recalled unpleasant or even hostile ones.

Since the U.S. lacks a uniform approach to parental leave, most women’s options are shaped by three factors:

  • the mind-set of the supervisor
  • the climate of the organization
  • the type of work performed.

“There are a lot of people who have no rights at all, and many who do get maternity leave can’t afford to take the time off,” says Ellen Bravo, director of 9 to 5, National Association of Working Women. “Plus, a company may have a good policy on paper, but in reality, an employee may feel pressure not to take what she’s allowed.”

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.

The Pressure of Being Away

Most women surveyed said they received friendly calls from their coworkers or supervisor, checking to see how they were. But 47 percent of you also said that time home was marred by negative reactions — such as complaints about extra work and how many weeks you were taking — from a supervisor or coworkers. A certified pharmacy technician in Indiana recalls getting two calls a week from both colleagues and her boss during her 12 weeks off, “reminding me that work was ‘so busy’ and ‘everyone has to work overtime,’ presumably because of me,” she says.

Those of you who took the shortest amount of leave told us you were subject to the most complaints, possibly because you were in environments that were inhospitable to parental time off. “I got a lot of grief,” says Sheila Leiweke, a manager at a retail store in Colorado Springs. “I kept hearing from coworkers, ‘I don’t have kids, and I get only one week off a year. You’re lucky.'” Those who received short leaves were also more likely to feel pressure to return to work early.

Almost two-thirds of you recounted that your boss or coworkers questioned you about whether you’d really return, though 72 percent of you said you did clock back in as scheduled — or earlier (9 percent returned later than planned, while 19 percent decided to quit). “One of the biggest barriers that women face is the perception by employers that if you go on leave, you’ll never come back,” says Martin Malin, a professor of employment law at Chicago-Kent College of Law, in Chicago. “But in most cases, that’s simply not accurate.” Women who negotiated for more than six months off fielded the most questions about whether they’d be back, and, in fact, they were the most likely to quit: 70 percent didn’t return to their job.

Almost half of you said you received work-related questions while you were on leave. While some didn’t mind, others felt they were taken advantage of. “I had too many calls while I was home; it was very difficult to focus when I was recovering from my c-section,” says Beth Cummings, a collection agent for a chain of department stores in Florida. Twelve percent of you felt compelled — out of concern for your position or to make extra money — to pitch in from home. Nancy Campbell, a professor of women’s studies, bartered with Ohio State University to get paid time off, since the school didn’t offer any. “I volunteered to write a proposal for the department’s new degree program and to work with my graduate students,” says Campbell, who recently transferred to a university with a paid policy.

Not surprisingly, those of you with a supervisor who’s also a parent found him or her to be more supportive. “My boss, who has three kids of her own, hired me when I was eight months pregnant, and when I returned to work from my leave, she told me that my hours were flexible and I should work around the needs of my baby,” says Tonya Douglas, a social worker from St. Joseph, MO. Women bosses tended to be more understanding overall: 49 percent of respondents with male supervisors were called at home with questions versus 36 percent with female bosses; 14 percent with male bosses were asked to perform tasks during their leave, while only 9 percent with female supervisors received similar requests.

Back On the Job

Almost 60 percent of you discovered that work was no different when you returned. An associate with an executive search firm in New York City told us she eased back in without trouble, settling into the same position after a two-and-a-half-month leave. But others found the transition difficult or their workplace transformed. A marketing executive for a health care company near San Antonio was told that she wouldn’t be considered for a raise for several months since she’d been out for 14 weeks. “It was as if my work had been wiped off the slate,” she says. Those of you who took more than four months off experienced the most changes in your job, reporting that you were twice as likely to be taken less seriously upon your return and three times as likely to be given fewer responsibilities.

One of the most encouraging survey findings: Many of you were able to make arrangements to ease your transition back to work or to better balance your job and your family after the baby’s arrival. An office administrator at a construction company in Knoxville, TN, says that her supervisor surprised her by suggesting that she bring her daughter to work every day: “I would never have imagined that it would be my boss who would lift the worry of daycare off my shoulders!”

Some of the work shifts you made:

  • 8 percent began to telecommute a few days a week
  • 8 percent took advantage of flextime or job-sharing
  • 23 percent switched to part-time work.

One mother from Ballston Spa, NY, scaled back to two days a week at a manufacturing company. By working as an hourly consultant, she makes almost as much as she did on a full-time salary. Jennifer Brinker, a social worker from Crownsville, MD, reports that her boss split her position so she could work half time: “He said some of me was better than none at all.”

Numerous women recounted how their manager went to great lengths to keep them. Elizabeth Walsh of Maplewood, NJ, got a promotion upon returning from her leave. “I saw it as ‘Please stay with us. We value you,'” says Walsh, who now works two days in the office and three days at home.

Such cases show there are businesses trying to come up with alternative work scenarios to attract employees, says Ellen Bravo of 9 to 5. “It can be a win-win situation, since good family policies increase loyalty.” In short, they’re good for everyone.

What About Dads?

What About Dads?

Tim Witkowski of Orland Park, IL, was determined to have an intimate relationship with his newborn. The utility-company inspector saved furiously before his son’s birth so he could take three unpaid months off work in addition to the four weeks of paid vacation he’d accumulated. “I believe it brought all three of us tighter together,” he says, in response to our survey. “I know I’m closer to my wife because she’s seen my dedication to the family.”

Witkowski is one of a growing number of fathers who are rearranging their lives — and taking advantage of the Family and Medical Leave Act — to spend time with their infant, says Martin Malin, a professor of employment law at Chicago-Kent College of Law. In fact, 33 percent of our survey respondents say their husband took more than vacation time away from work.

A few large corporations, including Merrill Lynch, Patagonia, and Lotus Software, have begun to offer paid paternity leave. But it’s still rare, since companies aren’t able to tap into their short-term-disability insurance to pay for it. The good news: Experts see a shift coming. “I think that twenty years from now, fathers will be given more time off to be with their children. The next generation’s going to expect it,” says Malin.

Around the World

More than 120 countries provide paid maternity leave to all employees. Here’s what a few offer (Source: International Labor Organization):

  • Germany: 100% of wages for 14 weeks
  • France: 85% of wages for 16 to 26 weeks
  • Israel: 75% of wages for 12 weeks
  • Japan: 60% of wages for 14 weeks

Finessing Three Challenges

My boss keeps calling me about work.

What to do: First, decide whether you want to be in the loop. If so, announce a time each day or every few days when you’ll be available, such as during your baby’s naptime or when you know you’ll have help.

If you don’t want to be called, keep a list near the phone of who’s covering your assignments. When your boss calls, say, “Let me check the list — oh, Susan’s got those files. She should have all the info you need.”

I’m afraid of losing ground at the office.

What to do: Touch base with your supervisor once every week or two to catch up on departmental changes. Every now and then, you can also refer to specific projects you’d like to tackle when you return to remind her that your job is still a priority.

If there’s a big sales meeting, conference, or training seminar while you’re out, you may need to attend. You can also ask that important materials be sent to you for you to review, and consider joining in key client meetings by conference call.

I want to extend my leave.

What to do: Explain to your boss that while you’re still very committed to your job, you’d like to spend a few more weeks at home with your baby. Be specific about exactly how much time you’d like, and present her with a plan for handling the work in your (now longer) absence. If she can’t accommodate your request, you may be able to compromise by overseeing a few projects from home or working part-time.

Contributing editor Jeannie Ralston’s last article for Parenting was Childbirth by Appointment, a look at the increase in labor inductions, in the April 2002 issue.