The Importance of Paid Maternity Leave

By: Haley Bond

Academic, 2019

When thinking about a woman who has just given birth to a child, this event should be thought of as a time of joy and excitement in her life. Whether they are becoming a parent for the first time or already have other children, it is a time that mothers can rejoice about. However, that is not always the case for many women. Becoming a parent is no undemanding task. While it is an incredible time, it can also be a stressful one. A new mother is going through so many changes at once. Outside of family and friends, the biggest thing a woman counts on after giving birth is maternity leave. The benefits of paid maternity leave and even paternity leave is invaluable. Having access to good paid maternity leave overall improves a woman’s health, business, economy, and family.

While the aftermath of giving birth is a beautiful thing, it can also be an all-time low for a women’s confidence and self-esteem. Many women face struggles with their bodies that they have never had to experience before having a child. Stretch marks, pain, hair loss, and postpartum hives are just a few to be listed. These things contribute to many new moms experiencing postpartum "baby blues" after childbirth, which commonly include mood swings, crying spells, anxiety and difficulty sleeping. Baby blues typically begin within the first two to three days after delivery, and might last for up to two weeks. But some new moms sink into something more severe called postpartum depression. This is an issue after giving birth that causes a mother to be severely depressed, anxious, and possibly suicidal. So what are some causes of this? Well there are the physical factors such as, after childbirth, a dramatic drop in hormones (estrogen and progesterone) in your body contributes to postpartum depression. Other hormones produced by your thyroid gland also may drop sharply, which can leave you feeling tired, sluggish, and depressed. Outside of the physical changes, the largest burden that can be placed on a new mother are finances.

Finances have been shown to be one of the leading things that puts strain on a family that has just welcomed a child. According to a 2010 USDA report, the average middle-income family will spend roughly $12,000 on child-related expenses in just their baby's first year of life. That number only grows year by year until the age of 18. And if the woman has had twins, this amount is more than doubled. In 1993, United States president Bill Clinton signed to pass the Family and Medical Leave Act. This policy gives eligible workers 12 weeks of unpaid leave to care for a new child. The United States remains the only country in the developed world that does not require that employers offer paid leave for new mothers, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. This policy was implemented at a bare minimum for new mothers and their families. For comparison, new mothers in Finland are entitled to up to three years of paid leave. New mothers in Norway get up to 91 weeks. The United Kingdom grants up to 39 weeks paid. And Canada gets a year of paid leave. It is no secret that the United States is behind the times on paid leave. The only few countries in the world that do not guarantee some sort of paid maternity leave under any circumstances are Papua New Guinea, Oman, Swaziland, and the United States. The United States is the only advanced country that does not have access to paid maternity leave. Maternity leave is scarce among American companies, especially when paid. The Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) was intended to partially alleviate this problem, but it only applies to companies with more than fifty workers and only allows twelve weeks of unpaid time off. Companies are welcome to offer longer periods of time or paid time off as a benefit, but the companies must absorb the cost of the program.

It is astounding how behind the United States is when there is significant data to support and show how beneficial paid leave is for mothers. There is little doubt that employees would benefit in multiple ways. Not only will financial stress be reduced, the ripple effects through families are profound. Paid leave worldwide has reportedly been linked to higher birth weights, lower infant mortality, greater engagement for fathers, and overall improved health of the child. All of this leads to happier employees who can better focus on work upon their return. In a 2012 study by the Rutgers Center for Women and Work, women who worked at least 20 hours a week prior to a child’s birth who took paid leave were 93% more likely to return to work postpartum, 9-12 months, than those who did not take leave (Eisler). Women with access to leave have an increased likelihood of working prior to having their child and also an increased likelihood of returning to the labor force after giving birth. Offering paid family leave increases the number of hours that a woman works after returning to work by about 2 to 3 hours per week. The availability of paid leave increases use of leave in the early months for mothers, but also increases their likelihood of returning to work by 9 to 12 months after the birth. Today, 37% of the workforce has children under age 18. It is not so surprising that in a Radcliffe survey, 83% of women and 82% of men aged 21-29 put having time to spend with their families at the top of their priority list, way ahead of a high salary and a prestigious job (Eisler). It is also more costly for a business to have to search for a replacement and to invest time and money training that replacement than it is to temporarily arrange for the coverage of the workers’ duties while they are on leave. Paid leave has been supported through all of this to show that it is in fact good for business, not hurting it.

Paid maternity leave has a huge positive impact on business. Most businesses studied simply went without any replacement workers, and fewer than 15% of businesses reported any additional costs relating to leaves of six weeks or longer (Center). 99% of employers studied reported that paid family leave produced an increase in employee morale and 87% of employers studied reported that paid family leave had not caused costs to increase (Center). 8.8% of employers studied reported that paid family leave had resulted in savings costs because employees were able to use the paid family leave instead of employer-provided benefits such as paid sick leave and vacation days. A 2001 study showed that businesses offering paid parental leave had 2.5 percent higher profits than businesses that did not. There are also high business costs from employee absences, which is often the direct result of a worker’s family responsibilities. For example, the company of Chemical Bank discovered that 52% of employee absences were caused by family-related issues. Businesses that have more caring policies dramatically cut turnover and absentee related losses. This doesn’t even take into account that a recent study found that between 30 percent and 40 percent of employees planning to leave have already checked out mentally and emotionally, focusing instead on their next job rather than their current one.

Outside of the benefits in business, paid leave also has a positive impact on the economy. Paid family leave reduces the probability of having to receive public assistance in the year after the child’s birth. Employees who are offered paid family leave are 39% less likely to receive assistance than women who keep working and have no leave at all (Houser). New mothers who are offered paid leave report $413 less in public assistance than mothers who were not offered paid leave and almost 10% of eligible workers (under the FMLA), receiving partial or no pay during leave, went on some form of government assistance (Klemen). Paid parental leave also increases women’s labor force participation. Increasing women’s labor force participation to equal that of males would increase GDP substantially. Higher labor force participation of women reduces the effects of a shrinking workforce due to aging. Paid parental leave reduces unemployment. Mothers often have to quit work in order to take care of the child. With no access to paid leave, many mothers cannot afford daycare services and must take care of the child on their own, which increases unemployment. Paid parental leave also boosts overall productivity in the workforce. Just a one week increase in available family leave is shown to be associated with an increase in labor productivity. Both paid and unpaid leave increase productivity but paid leave has a larger effect. The US would see an increase in multifactor productivity of approximately 1.1% over time if it were to institute paid maternity leave at the average OECD level of 15 weeks (Bassanini). Not only that, but findings in neuroscience indicate that good early care in a child’s life is a major factor in human capacity development. Parental leave makes it possible for parents to provide better care. The children being shown better care contributes to the high quality human capital that is key to success in the knowledge service age.

And finally, the other significantly large impact that paid leave has is on families. In a child’s early years, they experience rapid rates of brain and nervous system development. It is also in these early years that children form important social bonds with their caregivers. Breastfeeding can increase bonding between the child and nursing mother, stimulate positive neurological and psychosocial development, and strengthen a child’s immune system. Breastfeeding can reduce the risk of health problems like diarrheal disease, respiratory illnesses, asthma, acute ear infection, obesity, Type 2 diabetes, leukemia, and sudden infant death syndrome (U.S.). When a mother cannot take appropriate leave they are not able to breastfeed the baby as periodically as should be done. Instead they have to choose other alternatives such as pumping and storing the breast milk, or giving baby formula. Women are more likely to breastfeed when they take maternity leave, and longer leave increases both the likelihood and duration of breastfeeding. Children whose mothers take time from work after childbirth are more likely to receive healthy baby checkups at the doctor's office in the first years of life. When mothers stay home with an infant for at least 12 weeks after giving birth, their children have a greater likelihood of receiving all the recommended vaccinations. After controlling for per capita GDP, health care expenditures, and societal factors, each 10% increase in the duration of full-time equivalent paid leave in a country results in increased rates of vaccinations (Daku). Within the family, paid parental leave helps improve a mothers psychological and overall health. Women who took a maternity leave longer than 12 weeks reported fewer depressive symptoms, a reduction in severe depression, and, when leave is paid, an improvement in overall and mental health. There is a positive association between the duration of breastfeeding and a reduction in a woman’s risk of breast cancer and ovarian cancer, especially in women with a family history of either disease. There is a positive association between the duration of breastfeeding and a reduction in a woman’s risk of rheumatoid arthritis and also a positive association between the duration of breastfeeding and a reduction in the risk of Type 2 diabetes among young and middle-aged mothers (Stuebe). Outside of women taking maternity leave, there are also many benefits shown when a father is offered paternal leave. Fathers are known to not have as much time to spend with their children as the mother usually gets. Because mothers are typically cornered into quitting work, it is often seen that the mother stays home to raise the child while the fathers that are involved stay at work to provide money for the new addition. Fathers who take paid leave are able to spend more time with their child throughout their baby years, which are quite arguably the most important years for both parents to be as involved as possible. 10 countries currently offer paid leave for both parents, whether it is a set time period available for each parent, or the time is available to be split between parents. Paid leave available for the father has shown to be just as beneficial for the child in the long run, improving cognitive development.

Right now around the world, more countries than not are offering paid maternity leave and some even provide paid paternity leave. The studies are of no shortage to show just how beneficial it is to have these policies provided for new families. It has been shown through countless countries implementing these policies that sufficient paid leave has a direct ripple effect on things such as improving businesses, economic factors, child quality and health, as well as improvement in family. Governments in countries such as the United States need to look ahead at the other developed countries and quit falling farther and farther behind in this matter. Once the U.S. has the sense to implement mandatory paid leave towards families, they too could see the many improvements shown in other countries.