Maternity leave is not guaranteed for every new mother in the United States, and paid time off is even less common. A shocking new report from nonprofit magazine In These Times revealed that nearly 25% of employed mothers in the U.S. return to work within two weeks of giving birth.
The reason why became clear after an analysis of data from the Department of Labor, as well as stories collected from new mothers. Reportedly, working moms are returning to their jobs early, because they cannot afford to miss their paycheck. Against doctors’ advice, many women have no choice but to work so they can provide food for their families.
It’s no mystery why women return to work so soon. Only 13% of workers in the U.S. have access to paid leave and 40% of households with children under 18 rely heavily on a mother’s income. In fact, In These Times found that of all workers who took family or medical leave in 2012, 23% of women took less than two weeks off to care for a newborn infant.
Education and occupation are other factors that determine how much leave a woman takes. First, there is a disparity between moms who have a college education and those who do not. 80% of college grads took at least six weeks off to care for their newborn, while only 54% of women without degrees did the same.
Secondly, what a woman does for a living makes a major difference in whether she has paid time off or not. While 88% of private sector managers and financial workers had paid time off, only 40% of service workers had the same benefit.
The Family Medical Leave Act of 1993 (FMLA) provides maternity leave for mothers in the U.S. given they meet certain requirements. It mandates up to 12 weeks job-protected, but unpaid, leave to moms caring for a newborn, as long as they work for a company with at least 50 employees, have maintained employment with that company for 12 months, and have accumulated at least 1,250 working hours during those 12 months.
Investigative reporter Sharon Lerner interviewed a woman whose story demonstrates that FMLA does not provide protection for everyone. This woman saved her vacation days and purchased disability insurance in anticipation of going two months without income when her baby arrived. Then, she timed the conception of her child to coincide with when she would be eligible for job-protected leave.
However, the woman had a premature baby, too soon to qualify for FMLA leave or support from disability insurance. With no guarantee she would not lose her job, and no income, she was forced to return to work two weeks later, with her son still under medical supervision.