Lawyer and contributor Heather Stone helps us make sense of maternity leave and post-birthing laws.
One of the many issues that parents worry about when planning for a new baby is how they will afford to take time off during the precious first few months of a baby's life. Maternity leave has so many benefits for new mothers and babies, including increasing the likelihood that a mother will breastfeed (the World Health Organization recommends breastfeeding exclusively for at least six months). It has also been shown to increase the loyalty of workers to an organization and, in various studies, to benefit economic growth.
Many parents assume that there is mandated maternity leave in New York State, but that is not the case. In fact, there is only a requirement for unpaid leave, and even that mandate only applies to companies with 50 employees or more. Under the Family and Medical Leave Act passed in the U.S. in 1993, companies with 50 employees or more are required to offer 12 weeks unpaid or paid leave to mothers and fathers around the birth or adoption of a child. For companies with less than 50 employees, there are no maternity or paternity leave mandates, and it's up to the kindness of an employer's heart whether he or she decides to give workers any leave around a child's birth. In terms of the benefits that new working mothers and fathers are entitled to under the law, there are none for small companies and only 12 weeks unpaid for large companies. It is really up to the company and competitive hiring practices to push the maternity leave length and pay up.
So, how do parents in other countries fare compared to parents in New York, and across America? In the U.K., statutory maternity leave is 52 weeks, with 90 percent of pay guaranteed for the first six weeks and 136.78 Pounds -- or 90 percent of your weekly pay (whichever is lower) -- for the next 33 weeks. It's not mandatory that a worker take the full offered maternity leave, but it is required they take at least two weeks (or at least four weeks if they work in a factory). In France, women are guaranteed at least 16 weeks of maternity leave, though many French companies offer longer leave. If a woman who works two of the last five years elects to stay home from work longer than her maternity leave, then she receives a stipend from the government until her child is three years old. In addition, French law mandates 26 weeks of maternity leave to a woman having her third child. In Iceland, both parents are guaranteed three months of paid leave, with an additional three months that the parents can divide between the two of them as they please.
In fact, all 27 EU member states provide mandatory 14 weeks of paid maternity leave with the pay rate required to be at least as much as paid sick leave. According to the Institute for Women's Policy Research, mandated paid maternity leave benefits maternal and children's health, and the economy.
Even finding information on maternity leave in New York is a difficult task. While the laws in the U.K. are clearly spelled out by simply visiting the GOV.UK website, the New York state website directed me to call two numbers, one of which offered me a free cruise and the other of which gave an error message. Then I clicked the "more info" button and was led to a "Page Not Found" error page.
Fortunately, there is a requirement that a woman be allowed to take breaks to pump breastmilk for a year after giving birth. In 2010, President Obama amended the Fair Labor Standards Act to make it mandatory for all companies to provide, for a period of one year from the birth, a reasonable break time and a quiet space -- other than a bathroom -- for a new mother to pump breast milk any time during the day.
Alas, as we've seen with so many areas of the economy where laws are left open to the pressures of competition, competition has not pushed things in the direction of favoring women's and children's health. Few widespread benefits and assistance have been made available for most working mothers. According to the Institute for Women's Policy Research, only 10 percent of private sector workers had access to paid parental leave as of 2010. So as of three years ago, 90 percent of us have had to ask: how will I care for my baby and also keep my job so I can pay for my baby's food and babysitting? The laws probably won't change in our favor until we raise our collective voices and put pressure on politicians to enact more family friendly laws.