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Maternity Leave Challenges in the US Today

Although 163 countries provide guaranteed paid maternity leave for new mothers, the United States does not. In fact, this maternity leave statistic puts the US in the same boat with Lesotho, Papua New Guinea and Swaziland. Australia is the only other industrialized nation that offers no paid maternity leave for new mothers, but it does offer 12 months of unpaid leave.

Currently, the maternity leave policy in the United States is under the direction of the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) of 1993. In it, there is a provision granting up to 12 weeks of unpaid annual leave for mothers of newborn or newly adopted children. This act provides much fewer benefits than are available in other developed countries. Also, leave in other developed countries is for longer periods of time and provide for some kind of monetary compensation.

So what does the US offer new moms today?

Let us examine the laws for pregnancy and maternity leave up close. The first federal law that you should be aware of is the Pregnancy Discrimination Act. This Act makes it illegal for employers to fire, refuse to hire, or deny a woman a promotion because she is pregnant. However, it provides no job protection to new parents on maternity leave.

The second federal law that you should be aware of is the Family & Medical Leave Act (FMLA), which provides millions of workers with up to 12 weeks of unpaid, job-protected time off for maternity leave or recovery from illness.

If you happen to be so lucky, your company also may offer paid short term disability to help with your maternity leave and recovery from childbirth. Some companies are stricter than others in allowing a new mom on maternity leave to qualify for this paid benefit. Ask your HR representative if this is an option for you.

While most of us can depend on FMLA to guarantee us a return to our jobs, some workers cannot. FMLA only applies to businesses with over 50 employees. The FMLA protects working women and men who have been with the same employer for at least one year and have worked for at least 1250 hours over the course of that year. 40% of workers do not fall within these boundaries. Still more workers who are eligible for FMLA coverage simply cannot afford to take maternity leave without pay. In one survey, 78 percent of workers who needed FMLA but did not take it said they could not afford the unpaid leave. So what does this mean for your maternity leave?

It means that you may have to end your maternity leave before you are ready to leave your baby. To avoid this scenarios, start considering your options before you go on maternity leave.

  • Job Sharing: You share your job with another person, cutting your hours to half of what they once were. This allows you to spend more bonding time with baby, while giving you some income.
  • Telecommuting: Working from home may be a possibility if you have a computer, good Internet connection, and a telephone – at least while on a partial maternity leave.
  • Staying Home Full Time: Can you rearrange your budget to stay home – at least temporarily?
  • Start Your Own Business: There are so many possibilities out there from starting your own childcare business to selling goods on e-bay.

The US has a long way to go to protect working moms. Many families simply can’t afford to live on dad’s income alone, and many workers are single moms as well, with no choice but to work. With a little creativity and some luck, you may be able to work around the system, so you’ll have more bonding time with your baby and a longer maternity leave.