A new and disappointing trend is emerging: Apparently, American employees are donating their own vacation days so their expecting co-workers can have longer maternity leaves. To support this, companies are implementing maternity leave donation programs.
Good Morning America published what was intended to be a feel-good story about co-workers coming together to support each other, but what it points out is the paltry effort companies in the United States are making to rise above the lack of federally mandated, paid parental leave.
Donating vacation days so co-workers can have a longer maternity leave with pay should not be the solution. The U.S. is the only developed country that doesn't guarantee paid maternity leave. For many, the worry is not just about having enough time to adjust to a major life change, but also that they can't afford to take unpaid leave. A study published in the American Journal of Public Health found that only 47.5% of women who took time off after the birth of a child were paid for it. In the U.S., maternity leave is a luxury that many women can't afford.
Nebraska governor Pete Ricketts recently approved a new maternity leave donation program for state government workers. "We want our teammates at the State of Nebraska to have the flexibility they need to be with their newborn children following their birth," said the governor in a statement. While federal law may protect their job for 12 weeks following childbirth, new mothers must depend on their own vacation days and the donated days from their co-workers in order to be paid. All other days will remain unpaid.
Aside from the obvious problem of a lack of mandated paid leave, another problem emerges with maternity leave donation programs: the introduction of a new social pressure for people not having kids to overwork. America's work culture already pushes people to not use their vacation days, now it is encouraging them to give them up entirely. It's an unethical game of would you rather to ask a person whether they would give up their hard-earned vacation days to help out their pregnant co-worker, especially when it's because a company's policy explicitly denies pregnant workers paid leave.
Even with donated time, the women in the Good Morning America story barely took the same time as the shortest, paid maternity leaves of other developed countries which ranges from 12 weeks to as many as 40 weeks. The 2018 Employee Benefits Survey found that 15% of U.S. employers allow employees to donate paid time off to their co-workers. The same study found that only 35% of organizations even offer paid maternity leave. While the number of companies offering paid maternity leave has increased, the total amount of time they are offering and the percentage of companies that pay employees their full salary while on leave has actually decreased in the last decade.
While the generosity from co-workers is admirable, this new trend in company policies shows a lack of magnanimity on the part of employers as these new programs pressure employees to make up the difference.