Thursday, January 8, 2009

Women and Families Deserve Better

A new
conducted at the University of California, Berkley found that women who took maternity leave after their 35th week of pregnancy were four times less likely to need a caesarean section than women who continued to work until their delivery date. Despite the benefits associated with a natural birth, including less recovery time and a decreased risk of surgical complications, only 28% of U.S. women are opting to take time off before their delivery, according to a recent report from the U.S. census.

This disappointingly low number is not a testament of women’s maternal instincts but rather a reflection of the limited options available to women in the workforce. The Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) passed during the Clinton administration guarantees new mothers 12 weeks of unpaid leave and ensures that they are able to return to their previously held position. While the legislation was a step forward towards workplace equality, the policy is restricted to organizations employing more than 50 people and can only be used by individuals who have worked at the organization for at least 1,250 hours over the course of a year. Even when women meet the qualifications of FMLA, many are still unable to take a sufficient amount of time off of because they cannot afford to take unpaid leave. While states are able to pass laws mandating that employers provide women with paid maternity leave, the majority of states, including Maryland, have yet to do so. Individual employers may choose to offer paid maternity leave, but only a quarter of the top 100 best companies for working women provided their employees with at least nine weeks of paid leave (“Maternity”).

The consequences of such rigid policies are broadly felt. Families are forced to use sick days, vacation days, and disability leave in order to care for themselves and their children. Working mothers are also pressured to return to work soon after their child is born, despite findings that the sooner a woman returns to work after giving birth, the more likely she is to stop breast feeding her child, thereby preventing him/her from receiving the multiple health benefits of breast milk. Those hit hardest are women employed in low paying jobs, who cannot afford to take time off and have difficulty in paying for quality childcare.

It is time that America comes to realize the value of women in the workforce and as mothers and create legislation mandating that employers provide paid maternity leave to their employees. An ideal world would also offer paternal leave to working fathers. After all, paid leave offers significant benefits to every party involved: less stressed parents, healthy babies, and employers who do not have spend extra money hiring and training employees because of women forced to quit in order to care for their children. An agenda that offers anything less than sufficient paid maternity leave denies the importance of healthy women in the workforce and healthy children at home.

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