maternity leave in usa

Maternity Leave in USA

The legislations pertaining to Maternity leave have been a product of the development of women’s status internationally, from the domesticated subordinate in households during the previous century to the modern working woman post-World War II, whose participation in the labor force is deemed no less than any other.

In the United States, approximately 4 million women give birth to infants each year (US Census Bureau). Up to this date, there is an estimated 80.5 million mothers of all ages (US Census Bureau), and among this number, about two-thirds is in the labor force (Vezzosi 1). To add to this, it is said that more than 50% of the American mothers whose children are less than one year of age are members of the labor force (Smith, Downs and O’Connell 1).

The need for paid maternity leaves must not be seen only on the perspective of its benefits. Clearly, the changing view and behaviors of women as members of the workforce, not only because of their need to sustain their family, but also because of their drive to succeed in their careers must be considered. The trends in the women’s lives from the 1960’s clearly indicate that women today are more than ever, faced with the dilemma of keeping a family against pursuing a career.

The two factors, age and educational attainment of first time mothers are said to be contributing to the changing views and behaviors of the women as members of the workforce. Teenagers and women who were in their mid twenties comprised the population of first time mothers in the 1960s. The first time mothers at their 30’s increased by 300% from 7%-22% from 1960-1995 (National Center for Health Statistics). First time mothers also have higher educational attainment today compared to the previous decades. The percentage of first time mothers who have gone to college have been continuously increasing each decade from 8% in the 1960s to 21% in the 1980s (Day and Curry 20-489; Smith, Downs and O’Connel 2).

Women who have attained higher degrees have a higher probability of working during pregnancy. 87% of the women who have had college degrees were working in the mid 90’s. This is significantly higher compared to those who have not attained a high school diploma with 29% working and those who have just graduated high school with 60% (Smith, Downs and O’Connel 6).

Most working women were expected to stop working during pregnancy in the 1960’s. That is, 13% of the pregnant women stopped working immediately 6 months prior to the birth of their child. Women who stopped working declined to 5% in the 1980s. It is only during the start of the 80s when jobs are viewed by women more than as a source of finance but as a career. It was shown that it is college graduates and not less, who are in more need of finance, that stay in their jobs longer during their pregnancy (Smith, Downs and O’Connel 7).

There were relatively fewer mothers who returned to work immediately after giving birth in the 1960s. 14% of the mothers in the 1960s returned to work within the 6 th month and this increased to more than 200% in the 1980s when the Pregnancy discrimination act was passed. In addition, women who worked during pregnancy returns to work much earlier compared to women who were not working during pregnancy, that is within 3-5 months after pregnancy (Smith, Downs and O’Connel 15). Women who used paid or unpaid leaves during maternity are more likely to return to work earlier compared to those who were let go off their jobs or those who quit their jobs (Smith, Downs and O’Connel 16). Among those who immediately return to work, the jobs were secured by their employer.

Receiving paid leaves are associated with earlier return to work as well as return to the same employer implying the commitment made by modern women to work compared to women in the 1960s (Smith, Downs and O’Connel 20).

In the late 90’s the number of working pregnant mothers increased to 74% and the proportion of first time mothers who were working full time jobs increased to 57% in the late 90’s. This is comparatively higher to the 60s with 40% (Johnson and Downs 17).

However, despite the recognized significance of women’s participation in the labor force today, the US, together with four other countries, Lesotho, Liberia, Swaziland and Papua New Guinea still have limited provisions for expecting mothers and is considered as behind most countries. This is according to a study done by Harvard and McGill University led by Jody Hedmann (Crary).

A possible reason is the inherent problem regarding maternity leave which is the reconciliation of family needs with employer needs (Smith, Downs and O’Connel 3). Legislations allowing paid maternity leaves could reduce business capital and could thus affect the number of jobs available, as well as cause a reduction in the employment rate.

To cite an example, the Clinton Administration’s “Family and Medical Leave Act” of 1993, allows only unpaid short leaves for parents and does not specifically identify any particular accommodation for maternal leaves. The “Family and Medical Leave Act” is considered as one of the most recent legislations that concerns maternal support. It is already a product of a series of legislative steps towards generous maternal accommodation that goes back in the 1960’s.

In the 1960’s, there was no legislation that would ensure protection of mothers from any form of discrimination at work (Smith, Downs and O’Connel 3). Women had suffered from being discriminated or fired from their jobs on the basis of being pregnant or nursing (“The Pregnancy Discrimination Act 1).

The landmark of change in the patterns of women’s employment regarding maternity leaves happened in the late 1970’s to 80’s because this was the time when specific policies were legislated to protect the status of the said workers (Smith, Downs and O’Connel 20).

It is only in 1978, when the Pregnancy Discrimination Act was passed that a move against discrimination was done. Based on this act, employment discrimination of pregnant women, that is, firing or provision of unequal opportunities is prohibited on the basis of pregnancy and nursing status (Smith, Downs and O’Connel 3). The passage of the Pregnancy Discrimination Act in 1978 granted women a tool that would protect them from pregnancy discrimination and provided them a back up for greater opportunities (The Pregnancy Discrimination Act 1).

It is expected that this act would help fight the existence of discrimination against pregnant women in the workplace. However, it is said that after decades of the passage, pregnancy discrimination still exists. In the late 1980s there wre only 2.3% of the pregnant women who were fired from there jobs. This rose to 4.2% in the early 90s (The Pregnancy Discrimination Act 2).

In 1992, even with the decrease in the nation’s birth rate, there has been 39% increase in the discrimination charges that has been filed (The Pregnancy Discrimination Act 1; Pregnancy Discrimination charges EEOC and FEPAs Combined: FY 1992-2002).

Clearly, the passage of this law is not enough to protect the women. In addition, that it is poorly implemented signify that women’s rights are not as recognized in some businesses as it should be, necessitating a legalized policy not only to protect the women from discrimination but also to provide them with benefits that would turn businesses into recognizing the value of what women are rightful to.

Two years prior to the passage of the Act, any family with a dependent child was allowed to take tax credits for the costs of child care. This was made possible by the Federal Tax Code in 1976 (Johnson and Downs 3).

In the 1980’s, there had been a steady increase in the fertility rates. This gave rise to the issue on flexibility in schedules and child-care benefits in companies (Smith, Downs and O’Connel 3). In 1987, a US Supreme Court decision required the use of a California law that requires many employers to provide pregnant workers with unpaid 4 months of leave (Johnson and Downs 3).

It is the passage of the Family and Medical Leave Act in 1993 that mandated unpaid 12 week leave for pregnant women and for eligible employees with families every year (Smith, Downs and O’Connel 3). Based on the provisions of the act, this unpaid 12-week leave must be done within a 12-month period and must not be done intermittently (“Family and Medical Leave Act in 1993”). In addition, the Act not only ensures a job for the employee when she returns; it also ensures that the employee would be restored by the employer to the same position held by the employee before the leave, or an equivalent position (“Family and Medical Leave Act in 1993”).

Debates are now being held on whether to continue with the current legislation on allowing unpaid maternity leaves or to allow changes providing paid maternity leaves (Crary).

Some legislators who advocate such cause include Sen. Chris Dodd, D-Conn. who proposed a legislation that would support six-week allowance for workers’ family leave. Some lawmakers from New Jersey and California push for the allowance of paid family leaves. Suggestions are made to take the payment for leaves from the state’s budget for temporary disability insurance and at the same time a small percentage charge on the wages of the workers (Crary).

Among others, the conservatives are the ones who oppose the idea of paid leaves but might support it when seen through the perspective on abortion. Some conservatives who oppose abortion find themselves in favor of paid maternity leaves because of its potential to reduce abortion rates (Crary). Still, generally, advocates of paid maternity leaves push for child development and work-life balance of parents (Ward 1).

Several studies support the benefits of paid maternal leaves not only on the child and the mother but also to the society. In addition, the changes in legislations in the past decades showed positive effects on the trends in women employment.

A study done by Berger, Hill and Waldfogel (F29-F47) explored the link between mothers’ return to work and child development. It was found out that there are significant causal relationship between the mothers’ early return to work and reductions in breastfeeding practices. In a recent study done by Meek (461-474), mothers who are allowed to stay home are thrice as great in number compared to full-time working mothers. According to the report, only 10% of the latter breastfeeds their infants. This association is very evident in many societal divisions in ethnic, education and age groups (Meek 461-474; Wolf 2000-2010). Naturally, it was found out that breastfeeding practices are reduced and sometimes, even end immediately the moment when the mother decides to return to work (Lindberg 1996)

The implications of the study are seconded by the World Health Organization (WHO). According to WHO (2000), a minimum of 16 weeks of leave are needed by the mothers in order to ensure the health of both the mother and the infant. This independently implies that the provisions of the “Family and Medical Leave Act” of 1993, aside from being unpaid is insufficient to support the needs of the mothers and infants.

Behavioral problems, as well as in child immunizations are also said to be affected in the same way as breastfeeding by the mothers’ early return to work and reduction in time spent at home. Strongest relationship has been seen in mothers who return to work within the 12 weeks post natal (Berger, Hill and Waldfogerl F29-F47).

Aside from the age and educational attainment, other factor that is being associated with maternity leaves is the changing perspective at work when it comes to employment issues. If in the 1960’s women are expected to leave work, women starting the 1970’s are expected to contribute to the household income (Johnson and Downs 2; Cherlin).

The rising costs of goods and services that started in the 1970’s necessitates second incomes in households, thus, the mothers’ income is very crucial to sustain a family’s financial status and lifestyles (Smith, Downs and O’Connel 3). In turn, the desire to sustain the family’s financial needs causes the mother to immediately return to work and risk the development of the child. It is a common knowledge that the coming of a child indicates the necessity for changes in life patterns, and work of the family, particularly the mother who is expected to take great care of the child.

An international study done by Sakiko Tanaka of Columbia University examined the effect of maternity leave legislations on infants from 1969-2000. It states that longer paid leaves for mothers could improve the health of the infants and also reduce the mortality rates (Ward 1). Based on the study, there is a drop of 2.6 percent in infant mortality rate for every 10 weeks of additional paid maternity leave. This result has been associated with lengthier times of mothers to care for their infants (Ward 1). Particularly in the US, a 13.6% decrease in post-neonatal mortality rate is expected if the job-protected paid leave is extended to twelve months (Tanaka F7-F28). This is with the assumption that the effects are linear. In the UK, and extension to up to a year in job protected paid leave could reduce infant mortality by 6.8% (Tanaka F7-F28).

Take note that this significant possibility is said to be only taking effect if the job-protected leave is paid. In other words, if the provision is unpaid such as that in the US, there would be no expected significant effect on improving the child’s health or reducing infant mortality (Tanaka F7-F28).

Unpaid maternity leave would have no similar effect on the infants’ mortality rates because it is only through paid maternity leaves that mothers could continue the care for their infants without the pressure of early return to work (Ward 1). In addition, the study of Tanaka (F7-F28), implies significant relationship between paid leaves and the reduction of low birth-weight infants. As it is, low birth-weight is associated with increased infant mortality risks as well as future possible health defects in the child.

The provision of paid leaves does not only have a positive effect on child health but also on the mothers’ health. According to Chatterji, Pinka and Markowitz (2004), mothers who return to work later, that is, if allowed and convinced to return to work a few more weeks that what is required by the present legislation, experience less symptoms of depression or less frequency of such. They added that if allowed to return to work later, the mothers, particularly those who are in outstanding mental health would reap the most benefits.          Accordingly, the benefits of good mental health can be maximized if the duration of maternity leave is increased to beyond twelve weeks (Chatterji, Pinka and Markowitz 2004).

This implies that the inclusion of such findings in the considerations in policy making could very well improve or promote the mental health of employed mothers by reducing depressive symptoms (Chatterji, Pinka and Markowitz 2004).

A similar study was done by Clark, et. al. (364-383). According to their study, there is a significant relationship between the length of leave and the behavior in maternal interactions with infants: Shorter leaves are conducive to negative effects in the behavior of the child as well as mother-infant interactions. In particular, mothers who have had shorter leaves were reported as having symptoms of depression and also perceived their infants relatively negative and difficult compared to mothers with longer leaves.

The provision of maternity leaves by companies does not only benefit the mothers and the children. It also provides indirect benefit to the company concerned.  One of the greatest assets that a company can have is to have good relationship with their employees. Offering maternity leaves would improve the morale of the employees because it provides a feeling of concern. To the company, this could mean the benefit of having less turnover rates which would then reduce the financial costs associated with hiring and training (Smith, Downs and O’Connel 9).

About 80% of the working mothers returned to the same employer within a year and these women had a higher probability of returnig with no decrease in pay, skill an d number of hours (Johnson and Downs 17).

While the US provides no particular policy regarding paid maternity leaves, as well as limited protection for working women, most countries advocate the right of the women to breastfeed at work; some of which provide compensation during breastfeeding breaks (Crary). Even without any study, the legislations of the European Union regarding the issue on maternal leave could show how far behind US is.

The European Union has established minimum rights for their pregnant women as well as other parents. In particular, women are allowed a minimum of 14 weeks of maternity leave in all countries in the European Union, including 2 weeks before birth and 2 weeks after birth (“Minimum Rules on Paternity and Maternity Leaves” 1).

Generally, the main goal of the European Union is to ensure safe and healthy working conditions during pregnancy and to allow reconciliation between family and work. By law, it is the employers’ duty to ensure good health and safety precautions in the workplace. There should be no dangerous condition that could be hazardous to the pregnant woman. Basically, it is this requirement that should flex the working hours or working conditions in the workplace and not the other way around. If this cannot be done, the employer must allow the employee to take an indefinite leave to ensure the employee’s health and safety. Protection and assurance that there would be no dismissal is provided for the woman (“Minimum Rules on Paternity and Maternity Leaves” 1).

Still, the European Union protects the employers who provide the jobs from losing capital. It is important to note that the employers are not obligated to provide their employees with full pay during the leave. But, each pregnant employee is entitled to wage increase during the maternity leave, the amount of which, is dependent on the laws of the specific country. As a rule, wages should not be lower than the wages paid during sick leaves. (“Minimum rules on paternity and maternity leaves” 1).

The difference between the laws of each country in the European Union mostly lies on that regarding the length of maternity leaves. Germany, for, example, aside from the minimum 14-week leave, allows three-year worth of parental leave. Belgium allows 15 weeks of maternity leave but has reduced allowance for parental leave with only 3-weeks. Finland allows a total of 105 days of maternity leave plus 158 days of parental leave which can be utilized by both parents (“Minimum rules on paternity and maternity leaves” 1). The British government plans to increase the length of paid maternity leave to nine months and is even planning to extend it to a year (Ward 1).


The current trends in maternal provisions in the US have been a product of changes in the women’s status in the labor force as well as the changes in their views of family life and work. From firmly devoted to family in the previous decades and centuries, the modern woman has become a significant participant in the economy that requires different provisions as dictated both by her biology and her significant contributions in the society itself.

The provision of maternity leaves by can affect the health of the mothers and infants through the allowed time that women stay at home immediately after birth. Consequently, the benefits for the children include better parental bonding, longer periods of breastfeeding and better pre- and post-natal care; To the mothers, the benefits include better physical and mental health as well as better employment opportunities (US Census Bureau).

Indirectly, it affects the society by allowing the women to contribute to the better health of the future generation as well as to continue contributing to the economy by improving the labor market status through employment continuity. It is by influencing the amount of time that women are allowed to stay home after birth that the policy makers can contribute to their welfare (US Census Bureau).

That the current policy allows only unpaid, and short 12-week leave for mothers indicate the failure of the society and the government to recognize the significance and need of mothers, the children and the society for support particularly in development, financial, medical and psychological aspects (Demleitner 229-255; Wolf 2000-2010).
Works Cited

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Chatterji P and Markowitz S.  “Does the Length of Maternity Leave Affect Maternal Health?” NBER Working Paper No. 10206.

Cherlin A. “Marriage, Divorce, Remarriage”. Harvard University Press: Massachusetts, 1992.

Clark R, Hyde JS, Essex MJ, Klein MH. “Length of Maternity Leave and Quality of Mother-Infant Interactions”. Child Development, Vol. 68, No. 2 (1997): 364-383.

Crary, D. “From maternity leave to sick pay, U.S. lags other countries”. The Journal Times. 01 Feb 2007. 22 Mar. 2007 <>.

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Smith K, Downs B, O’Connel M. “Maternity Leave and Employment Patterns: 1961-1995.” US Census Bureau: Household Economic Studies.  (2001): 1-21.

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