Image source: Thinkprogress.org
Have you ever thought about how the duration of and financial compensation during your maternity leave affects your long term career and your family life? I have had the benefit of working in both the US and Canada where parental leaves could not be further apart in both time off and financial support. I unfortunately, chose to have kids in the country with the least family friendly policies where the majority of benefits (pay, or additional time off) are left to the discretion of an individual’s employer.
US Parental Leave
In the US there is no federal system set up for paid maternity or paternity leave (parental leave). In 1993 the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) was passed that required employers to provide a job-protected unpaid leave to employees for 12 weeks to care for family members ; maternity leave falls into this category.
Any extension of this, whether it is paid or longer than 12 weeks is at the discretion of the employer. In my experience, 12 weeks was only an option if I had an issue with the birth of my child that required a longer leave. My leave coordinator started calling me at 6 weeks asking when I was going back and requiring documentation from my doctor to extend it to 12 weeks (I lived in Illinois at the time). Because I was fairly new in the company, I had worked there a year and 3 months when I had my child, my time off was unpaid. In the US they cannot backfill you while you are on leave.
Canada Parental Leave
In Canada, individuals receive 55% of their pay up to $485/week for 50 weeks, 15 weeks of that is maternity leave + 35 weeks of parental leave which can be shared with the father. The payment comes from an individual’s contribution to Employment Insurance (EI), the US equivalent of Unemployment Insurance. So you pay into the program as a tax and get paid with your own funds essentially, while you are on leave.
There is an additional 2 weeks of unpaid maternity leave which totals one year of job-protected leave for a new mom or dad. It is then at the discretion of the employer to ‘top up’ an individual’s pay as an added benefit. After your leave the company must provide you with your old role or one that is comparable.
Rest of the World
There are only 4 countries in the world that have no national law mandating paid time off for new parents: Liberia, Papua New Guinea, Swaziland and the United States. There are a couple of states in the US that offer a portion of your pay (55%/66%) for a period of time (generally 6 weeks or less), California and New Jersey. In Hawaii, New York and Rhode Island pregnancy is treated as a disability and so a portion of your pay covered for a period of time.
So how has all of this affected you personally? I know for me, it meant becoming a stay at home mom, which is counter-intuitive. Don’t get me wrong, I chose to be a stay at home mom and I’m fortunate to have had a choice. But up until the birth of my first child I really didn’t know what I would decide to do, it wasn’t until I got the call from my leave coordinator at 6 weeks post-partum that I thought absolutely no way can I commute for 3 hours a day when I’m not even sleeping through the night. Not to mention I felt like crap. So I passed up my job and didn’t look back and was all the happier for it.
I’m clearly in a fortunate position to be able to make that choice but, I couldn’t help but think, what if I was a single parent? What if I was the bread winner? What if I didn’t have the choice? Six, even twelve weeks is an extraordinarily short amount of time for maternity leave and depending on who you work for, a long time to go without compensation if your company doesn’t provide any financial support.
Impact to Family and Workplace
Childcare also becomes an issue in the US, many facilities will not accept children under 6 months of age. So many families find themselves with a 3 month gap between the time they are expected to return to work and the time when their children will be accepted into daycare.
Aside from the obvious benefits that the Canadian standard 50 weeks of paid parental leave affords a new family, having that extra time to be home with your child during that first year purely from a bonding standpoint is wonderful, it can also provide opportunities in the workplace. Before I had children, I was working in Canada and a very common way for a person just starting out was to take over for someone on maternity leave on a one year contract. You could start with a company, prove yourself for that year and then move to a new role within the company. Many of my friends have said their careers advanced faster because they were able to take advantage of opportunities while others were out on maternity leave.
The flipside of this of course, is the impact to your own career while being out for a year, not to mention the impact to a company while you are out. Multiply that by 2 or 3 children and it adds up to a significant amount of time.
I am not sure what the ideal situation is, both seem to have their flaws. But for the average American family, having no financial support at the federal level seems outdated. According to Amanda Peterson Beadle on Thinkprogress.org this does not reflect the current state of American families where 50% are dual income and 26% are single parent families, suggesting that couples or women must forgo a substantial portion of their income to start a family.
So I’m curious. How long was your maternity leave? Did you find it too long? Too short? How has it affected you in your workplace? How has it affected your workplace on a whole?
Okay, you are all smart people, let’s solve the world’s problems. In an ideal world how would you design maternity leave?