The Backwards Logic of U.S. Maternity Leave
We live in a time where American politicians and religious groups pander to the public, lauding the importance of ‘family’ and heaping praise onto mothers for their contributions. Yet our national policies and politics don’t reflect this reality. A quick look at our nation’s laws show that if we drop the double speak, very few in government see new mothers as playing a valuable role. In fact, the United States has some of the worst maternity leave laws on Earth, barely falling above Swaziland, Lesotho and Papua New Guinea.
The idea of paid maternity leave turns a lot of conversations sour. People wonder why we would pay someone for not working, for simply having a baby, while other workers have to pick up the slack. But there’s a reason every single other industrial country on Earth does this, and very little of it includes ‘pandering to women.’ Rather, there are real, practical economic decisions behind them.
One of these reasons has to do with national health policy. A study by NCBI showed that women given longer maternity leaves suffered less depression and lowered infant mortality rates. While some may shrug off depression, it costs the United States half a trillion dollars per year to treat. This includes disability pay, hospitalizations and medication, which often falls on the general public. However, there are also numerous costs to companies including high absentee rates and low production.
Other arguments are that paid maternity leave would hurt companies, that it isn’t fair to expect companies to hold onto an employee while they go focus on their home for a few months. Yet Forbes points out that loosing an employee is incredibly expensive for a workforce. Temporary leaves, even with 100% salary, are more manageable for companies than replacing competent employees, especially when you consider that a replacement is just as likely to start a family themselves.
For example, at Google, they noticed a large attrition rate with women who had just given birth and so they lengthened maternal leave from 3 to 5 months. A 50% drop in women leaving after giving birth followed. Moves such as these ultimately save the company money.
Forbes also brings up another capitalist-based point rarely considered: “When someone quits without paid leave, especially a low wage worker, they are often forced to apply for public assistance which is paid by taxpayers. Wouldn’t it be better to contribute to universal paid leave that lasts six weeks, versus enrollment in public assistance that could go on much longer if the individual can’t find a new job?”
But let’s also take a moment to look at the schism in thought that must occur to deny women paid maternity leave by law. We have some undeniable truths: some women will have babies. Some of those women and babies will undergo medical complications. Most women, in the United States, are needed at work to contribute to household expenses.
We have set our society up in a way where we absolutely need mothers, we need working mothers and yet treat their welfare as a burden. Sending them off on disability pay, or with no pay at all, is not a realistic way to create a healthy society. Expecting every pregnant woman to have a wealthy partner, able to support her at all times, is not a realistic scenario either. As a nation, we need to address this issue proactively.
If you visit the UK, France, the Netherlands, China or South Korea you will see plenty of productive companies employing women, giving maternity (and paternity) leave, and doing perfectly fine. They don’t go belly up, not everybody in the office grumbles, and life goes on.
Paid maternity leave is not the same as creating a welfare state because it is an economically viable strategy for retaining valued employees and maximizing productivity. However, it is perplexing that with so much rhetoric wasted on how important the ‘American family’ is, we rarely see it reflected in concrete policy.
We are one of four countries in the industrialized world that refuses to enshrine paid maternity leave in our laws, that thinks women should be penalized for procreating. Not only is it outdated, it is poor policy in both economic and healthcare sectors. If we’re really worried about saving companies money (never mind those humans who just created life), it makes sense to join the rest of the world, and make paid maternity leave a law.