While high-end firms that employ the most well-educated and well-paid U.S. workers compete in a benefits arms race, too many working women are forced to skimp or skip out on maternity leave because of the United States’ lack of paid leave policy, a new analysis of data from the Department of Labor makes clear.
Nearly 1 in 4 new mothers surveyed by the department in 2012 were back at work within just two weeks of having a new baby, according to an analysis conducted by researchers at Abt Associates for an investigative feature in In These Times, published Tuesday morning.
The researchers looked at a survey of 2,852 workers who took leave in 2012, honing in on the 93 women who took time off to care for a new baby. Of those women, nearly 12 percent took a week or less; another 11 percent took between one and two weeks off, according to the analysis. Among college graduates, longer leaves ruled the day: Eighty percent of the women who took at least six weeks leave had a degree. Only 54 percent of women without a degree were able to do so.
"Talking to women in this situation was just heartbreaking," journalist Sharon Lerner, author of the In These Times piece and a senior fellow at Demos, told reporters on a conference call Tuesday afternoon. A full-time waitress working more than 60 hours a week told Lerner that when her son was just 4 weeks old, she would come home exhausted and sleep with one hand on her baby because that's the only connection she could get.
The report highlights the gaping rift between the country’s have and have-not parents. This year, a growing number of companies that employ mostly well-educated white-collar workers have beefed up their leave benefits, including Adobe, Microsoft, Nestle, Vodafone, Goldman Sachs and Blackstone.
"The highest-paid workers are most likely to have [paid leave]," writes Lerner in the piece. "More than 1 in 5 of the top 10 percent of earners are getting paid family leave, compared to 1 in 20 in the bottom quartile."
The U.S. is the only major country on the globe that offers no paid time off for new mothers, placing a terrible burden on these women, their families and the country.
The consequences of returning to work so soon are devastating for new mothers and their families -- economically, emotionally and physically. Mothers who return to work so early are plagued with depression and less likely to breastfeed their children. Their children can suffer developmentally, the feature notes. Researchers have even found a correlation between the amount of leave a new mother takes and infant mortality rates. Those forced to quit their jobs often turn to public benefits that are scarce and stingily doled out.
The In These Times piece shines a heartbreaking light on what happens when these women return to work too soon.
One mother opens up about crying in the parking lot, on a break from a 12-hour factory shift, as she pumps milk for her infant. A Chase bank manager said she was forced to quit her job because she needed to take a 12-week leave to care for her premature infant.
Just last week, another Wall Street firm announced what Bloomberg News called a “gilded” perk for new mothers. Private equity firm KKR & Co. said it would pay for nannies to travel with new mothers and their babies. The firm, founded by billionaires Henry Kravis and George Roberts, also upped the amount of leave it gives KKR parents from 12 weeks to 16 weeks, and started a “transition support” program to reintegrate new parents returning from leave.
Meanwhile, the Family Act, a bill that would offer federally mandated paid leave to new parents, has so far gone nowhere in Congress. However, the two leading Democratic presidential candidates support it, and some Republicans are even starting to come around on the issue.
As Lerner points out, it's hard to argue against the strong moral case in favor of paid leave, “to which there is no politically sound retort: Families need paid time off to take care of their new babies. Men, women and children will gain from this basic human dignity."
This story has been updated to include a quote from Sharon Lerner.