Mandated Paid Maternity Leave: It's Time to End the Divide Between the 'Haves' and the 'Have-Nots'

When we examine "have" and "have-not" issues in the United States, we usually think of the digital divide or the enormous gap between the rich and the poor or the difference in resources of city schools and suburban schools. We rarely think of paid family leave, but we should. There's a huge have/have-not divide between moms who receive paid maternity leave and moms who only receive either Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) time (12 weeks of unpaid leave, which is mandated for companies with 50 or more employees and applies to about half of U.S. workers) or no job-guaranteed time away from work.

The gap has to do with a woman's profession, the company she works for, and the state or city she lives in. And the gap is terribly unfair to both mothers and babies on the have-not side of the equation. That's why the White House Summit for Working Families, hosted by President Obama yesterday, comes at such a critical moment in time.

Of all companies in the U.S., only 16 percent offer paid maternity leave. That leaves new moms at 84 percent of all companies on the have-not side of this issue. Of all states in the union, only a handful, including California and New Jersey, mandate paid leave for moms. Of all job types, women in professional and managerial roles are most likely to receive paid leave; many hourly, technical, unskilled and low-paid workers get no paid time off.

As with most have/have-not gaps, there is something doubly or triply unfair about the paid/unpaid divide. New mothers who have the most physically demanding jobs are least likely to have paid time off to recover from the enormously taxing effort of giving birth. Families already struggling to make ends meet receive no pay for the time they stay home with their newborn. And moms who most need their jobs are forced to go back to work too soon because they can't live without their paycheck.

This scenario seems all the more absurd or outrageous when you consider the global haves and have-nots of paid leave. Only the U.S., Swaziland, Lesotho and Papua New Guinea allow their citizens to go unpaid during the critical and expensive time of a new birth. Nearly all of the world is on the have column, and the U.S. stands nearly alone in the have-not column. If that sounds odd to you, imagine how it feels to a mom in Anywhere, U.S.A., who has to return to work before three months because she can't afford to go without her paycheck.

It feels gut wrenching.

When FMLA passed in 1993, most women, including me, thought it would be a few years before we had mandated paid leave. It's been two decades.

It's time for the country to follow California's excellent role modeling on this issue to mandate paid leave and set up a system that pays for the have-nots with small contributions to an insurance fund. No more have-nots for American moms!