Your Right To Maternity Leave
What should you expect if you’re expecting? If you’re working, you should expect to have a big conversation with your boss — since U.S. law doesn’t require employers to provide paid time off for childbirth. And, they know you might leave, anyway; nearly half of college-educated women will leave work or take extended leave from their jobs. Either way, it can be extraordinarily difficult to figure it out while you’re also experiencing the physical and mental stress of having a baby. That’s why, no matter how far off pregnancy may be for you, it’s worth thinking about now.
To start, the U.S. has among the least accommodating laws of any country for working mothers. "There is no guarantee of paid maternity leave in the United States," says Phoebe Taubman, a senior staff attorney at A Better Balance, a collective of lawyers advancing women’s rights in the workplace, and co-author of Babygate, a book that arms women with the legal information they need to hold down their jobs during and after pregnancy. "We’re an outlier in the global picture. The latest data from the United Nations shows that there are only two countries that do not guarantee some paid leave to all new mothers: the U.S. and Oman."
Some states have slightly more progressive laws, and 11% of private sector companies offer formal paid family leave. However, many American women will struggle to stay at their jobs while dealing with the stresses of pregnancy and new motherhood. And, the problem is, the nitty gritty of maternity leave policies are the last thing on a woman’s mind when she’s starting her career. "Pregnancy is a stage of life that people don’t really focus on until they are in the thick of it," Taubman says. "But, then it might be too late! You’re overwhelmed, exhausted, vomiting, and don’t have the energy to figure out what your rights are."
Maternity leave rights are complicated because there are so many variable factors. Nationally, the Family and Medical Leave Act requires companies to give their workers 12 weeks of leave, keeping their jobs secure during this time, although there is no requirement that they continue to pay the workers on leave. And, Taubman warns women to beware of the law’s many caveats: Companies with less than 50 employees are exempt; you must have worked a full year before you are entitled to the leave; and, if you want a stream of income while you’re out, you must plan ahead and use accrued vacation or sick days during this time.
Studies show that women permanently leave the workforce in large numbers when they have children. Harvard Business Review famously reported that 43% of highly qualified women with children opt out of their careers altogether. The survey in question sampled 2,443 smart, driven women who were committed to their jobs, did well in college, and often proceeded to get graduate or professional degrees before deciding to abandon their careers when kids came into the picture.
But, you might say those women are the lucky ones, because for the vast majority of mothers, even if they wanted to stay home and not return to work, they could not afford to. According to the government’s recent data, 40% of mothers are now the sole breadwinners in their households. And, many employers refuse to provide reasonable accommodations that would allow pregnant women to continue working, such as allowing them to carry a water bottle while attending a factory job. Shockingly, there is no federal regulation requiring companies to do so.
As a result, many pregnant women are forced out of jobs they desperately need. This past August in New York, for instance, Angelica Valencia, a 39-year-old expectant mother, was informed by her supervisors that she could not continue working at her potato packing factory in the Bronx. Her doctor had deemed pregnancy to be high-risk, and wrote her a note saying she was not allowed to work overtime. As a result, she was fired. In the last two months, Taubman’s legal advocacy group, A Better Balance, fought Valencia’s case, claiming that her employer had violated a specific New York City law called the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act. Her company has taken her back, and her lawyers are now fighting for back pay.
Valencia’s story serves as a cautionary tale about how important it is for women to understand the specific rights afforded to them in their state. To help with this process, A Better Balance has just launched a website that provides detailed, state-specific legal information. But, Taubman says that it is also important for women to take political action to help improve the laws where they live. One step in this direction would be to lobby, support and vote for parties pushing forward women’s workplace rights.
The Legal Fight
Since individual states can significantly raise the minimum standard of maternity leave, Taubman encourages women to think about supporting political candidates and parties committed to fighting for more workplace rights for women. In New York, for instance, Taubman has worked closely with the Working Families Party and the brand-new Women’s Equality Party to help draft legislative documents that, if passed, could dramatically improve working conditions for pregnant women and mothers.
Taubman believes that it is vital for women, regardless of their stage in life, to closely examine their political options and support pro-women candidates. She urges women to contact their elected officials — especially those were just elected or re-elected this week. "We all know that money matters to politicians, but we should not forget that they are also influenced by the masses and they care about the needs of their constituents."
Taubman says maternity leave becomes a crucial issue to women at a time when they do not have the time or the mental space to be politically active. "Most politicians do not hear enough about these issues from their constituents because the women who really need these policies to be passed are unable to be engaged and persistent, so elected officials simply do not prioritize it," she says. That’s why the best time to be fighting for maternity policies is before you have a child.
What Can You Do At Your Job Right Now To Prepare?
The fight for political rights is important, but legislative change takes time. The more pressing question is what you can do at your job right now to prepare for the day you decide to have a baby. Whether that's years down the road or next month, Taubman offers some advice about how to start arming yourself now for the battle to come:
There is often room to negotiate with your employer about the exact conditions of your maternity leave — and those are conversations worth having when you first decide you may want to become pregnant, so you can understand your situation without urgency. It is worth trying to start a conversation with your manager about exactly how much time you will take off or the possibility of coming back part-time or on a flexible schedule. If your office does not already have a pumping room, you could ask that they look into getting one. But, remember, you will increase your chances of getting what you want when the time comes if you have proven that you add value to your company. Many companies will do what is necessary not to lose hard-working and valuable staff members.
"Establish your value on the job," says Taubman. "This gives you some leverage and goodwill from your employers when the time comes for you to negotiate. All of these conversations are made easier if your employer realizes how much you contribute."
However, negotiating may not always be an option. If you are relatively new to your organization or if you work in an industry where employees are not empowered to talk to the management, you will need another strategy. "There are lots of women who work in lower wage, high-turnover workplace where employers consider their workers disposable," says Taubman. "In these conditions, it is hard to build up leverage no matter what you do."
If this is your situation, it is worth taking the time to study the laws of your state regarding maternity leave, long before you need to use them. This way, when the time comes, you will be armed with the strength of the law when you go to your supervisor or HR department to ask for a particular accommodation, such as the right to not work overtime.
Whether you’ve just started your first job or you’re busy racing up the career ladder, it’s worth keeping an eye towards the future to make sure you don’t lose the progress you’ve made in your career the moment you decide to start a family. Sharpening your negotiation skills and doing your homework now will pay off in the long run. Because, let’s face it, when you find out you’re pregnant, you’ll be too busy celebrating and throwing up to worry about your legal rights.