Another day, another report on how Maine and the nation can improve. This time, it came from the National Partnership for Women and Families, which pointed out, “The United States is the only highly competitive country that fails to provide paid leave to new mothers.” Ouch.
To say the least, the country’s laws regarding maternity leave haven’t kept pace with economic reality, as fewer and fewer women stay home to raise their children. A record four in 10 households with children under age 18 have a mother who is either the sole or primary breadwinner for her family, according to the Pew Research Center. The percentage has quadrupled since 1960.
Yet women are still largely expected to take unpaid time off to care for and bond with their new babies. How many people can afford to take, say, 10 weeks off work without earning any income? Right.
Certainly the general public knows how beneficial it is for parents to spend quality time with a new child. Anyone who has tried to hold down a full-time job while caring for a baby who doesn’t sleep through the night knows how easy it is to lose it — one’s sanity, that is, not the baby.
Perhaps you’re thinking: But unpaid leave is better than no leave. And you would be right.
But the way the law is written, there’s a gaping hole for most businesses in Maine to opt out of even providing unpaid leave. Here’s the law: Employers must provide up to 10 work weeks of family medical leave in any two-year period — but only if they have 15 employees or more. As you can guess, most private employers in Maine have fewer than 15 employees.
Federal law isn’t much help either. Most people use the Family and Medical Leave Act to take time off for health problems, and it also allows parents to take 12 weeks off for the birth, adoption or foster placement of a new child. It only applies, however, to employees in workplaces with 50 or more workers within a 75-mile radius. And, again, the time off is unpaid.
So essentially Maine and the country have laws that almost require the unpaid leave that few people can afford to take advantage of anyway. It is a sad statement about the country prioritizing work far more than family — and expecting women, mostly, to take the hit.
While at least 181 countries require paid leave for women having children, the U.S. has decided to let businesses handle it. A few have stepped up to provide for their working mommas — and boost their own recruitment and retention, as it can cost more to rehire and retrain someone than to offer the benefit.
But overall, few employers offer paid maternity leave — and fewer are offering it over time. About 9 percent of employers nationwide offered the benefit in 2014, according to the National Partnership for Women and Families. That’s down from 16 percent in 2008 and 27 percent in 1998. So, no, businesses aren’t really filling in where the law could.
In California, however, employers were prodded to step up. It was the first state to start a paid family leave program, which began in 2004 and provides employees up to six weeks of partial wage replacement. Like an insurance benefit, the program is funded by a small employee-paid payroll tax. There are no direct costs for employers.
In a 2010 survey of 253 California employers, most said the paid family leave program had either a positive effect or no noticeable effect on productivity (89 percent), profitability and performance (91 percent) and turnover (96 percent). Not surprisingly, workers who took advantage of the program experienced better economic, social and health-related outcomes than those who didn’t — especially workers in low-quality jobs.
What is Maine waiting for? There is an active family leave model to consider that doesn’t harm employers and is desired by employees. This state needs more families. Babies need their parents’ loving attention. And everyone knows moms deserve the utmost respect. Let’s do something to make them proud.