U.S. lacks support for working mothers

The United States lags far behind just about every other industrialized nation in its overall support for working parents. Although family values are often touted by politicians on Capitol Hill, a recent report from Human Rights Watch sheds some unfavorable light on the fact that across the U.S., there is a gross lack of support for working parents, including little or no paid family leave after giving birth or adopting a child, lingering employer reticence to offer breastfeeding support or flexible schedules, and workplace discrimination against new parents, especially mothers. 

In the U.S. the federal statute, the Family Medical Leave Act of 1993 (FMLA), does entitle workers of covered employers up to 12 weeks of unpaid and job-protected leave for certain family and medical reasons, including the birth and care of a newborn child within one year of birth and the adoption or foster care of a child. However, due to the exclusion of small employers and short-tenure workers, about 40 percent of U.S. workers are not eligible for protection under the FMLA. Maternity leave has important implications for maternal and child health. 

Research suggests that mothers who take maternity leave – especially leave that is paid – breastfeed their babies for a longer period of time. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) notes that low breastfeeding rates at 3, 6, and 12 months is evidence that mothers continue to face multiple barriers to breastfeeding, including the fact that many types of jobs and work schedules do not allow for the consistent and adequate pumping of breast milk.

Working mothers and the obstacles they face 

Overall, women comprise half of all U.S. workers, according to a 2010 Congressional report prepared by the Majority Staff of the Joint Economic Committee. 

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) also reports that as of 2009, only a few countries, notably Canada and Sweden, had female labor force participation rates that were higher than the U.S. Meanwhile, the agency projects that by 2018 the women’s civilian-labor force will increase by 9 percent, to roughly 6.5 million. 

More specifically, the BLS reveals labor force participation rates of mothers with children under age 18 surged from 47 percent in 1975 to 71 percent in 2008. Not surprisingly the agency notes that mothers with children older than 6 years are more likely to participate in the labor force than mothers with younger children. Nevertheless, in 2010 the BLS announced the labor force participation rate of mothers with children under 6 years old was 64 percent and a whopping 57 percent for mothers with infants under a year old. 

The Congressional report concludes the role of women in the U.S. economy is critical, stating, “The future of the American economy depends on women’s work, both inside and outside the home.” Will real change come from such strong rhetoric? 

Despite the documented growth and rising importance of women in the U.S. labor market, pregnant women and working mothers still face a number of obstacles in balancing their dual roles as professional and mother. 

The February 2011 report from Human Rights Watch, which analyzed 190 countries, found that 178 guaranteed paid leave for new mothers. Nine were unclear about their maternity policies, and only three clearly offer no legal guarantee of paid maternity leave: Papua New Guinea, Swaziland, and the U.S. It’s a finding supported by the Department of Labor, which notes that the U.S. is the only developed nation without some form of paid maternity leave.

Among the other findings of the Human Rights Watch report: 

  • Overall, the lack of paid maternity leave forced mothers to give up breastfeeding early. 
  • U.S. parents report that having scarce or no paid leave contributed to delaying babies’ immunizations, postpartum depression, and other health problems. 
  • Many parents who took unpaid leave went into debt and some were forced to seek public assistance. 
  • American women reported that employer bias against working mothers derailed their careers. 
  • Many same-sex parents were often denied even unpaid leave.

In the U.S. the federal statute, the Family Medical Leave Act of 1993 (FMLA), does entitle workers of covered employers up to 12 weeks of unpaid and job-protected leave for certain family and medical reasons, including the birth and care of a newborn child within one year of birth and the adoption or foster care of a child, according to the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL). To be eligible for leave under the law, however, an employee must have worked for their employer for a total of 12 months and must also have worked for a total of 1,250 hours or more in the previous 12 months. The employee also must work at a U.S. location where at least 50 other employees are based within 75 miles. 

Due to the exclusion of small employers and short-tenure workers, about 40 percent of U.S. workers are not eligible for protection under the FMLA, according to the Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR). The Center believes American employers have not stepped in to fill the gap and finds that while about 60 percent of workers are eligible for FMLA-related leave, only about 25 percent of U.S. employers offer fully paid “maternity-related leave” of any duration, and 1 out of 5 U.S. employers offers no maternity-related leave of any kind, paid or unpaid. CEPR further argues that for many low- and middle-income families, unpaid leave is simply not an option; these families cannot afford the time away from work and are forced to take no leave at all. 

In a 2009 report assessing parental leave policies in 21 countries, the group cites a 2000 Department of Labor survey over a 22-month period in 1999 and 2000 in which 3.5 million people in the U.S. needed leave for family or medical reasons but did not take it; almost 80 percent of those who did not take the leave said they just could not afford to do so. 

How does the U.S. measure up? 

The CEPR report identified four countries with leave policies that are strongest on both generosity and gender equality. These countries include Finland, Norway, Sweden, and Greece. Several others also offer parents generous options for paid family leave. Here is a rundown:

CountryTotal Weeks of LeaveWeeks of Paid Leave
Sweden16347
Germany17047
Norway15044
Greece6034
Finland4832
Canada5228
Spain15627
Japan5826
Italy6925
France15622
Ireland7021
Denmark5220
Austria11616
New Zealand5414
United Kingdom8013

Trailing behind the countries listed above, Switzerland offers just 14 weeks of maternity leave to care for a new child. Unlike the U.S. however, even Switzerland provides 11 weeks of paid leave.

Paid leave linked to higher breastfeeding rates 

A study published in Pediatrics found that women who work during the year leading up to the birth of their baby, and then stay home for at least three months afterward, are twice as likely to continue breastfeeding for more than three months. Seventy-five percent of the women with 13 weeks of maternity leave initiated breastfeeding; the rate was 65 percent in women with 1–6 weeks of maternity leave. Less than 20 percent of the women with 1–6 weeks of leave continued to breastfeed for more than three months. The authors concluded that U.S. mothers who return to work after 13 weeks are more likely to breastfeed longer.

Additional research shows that paid leave significantly improves breastfeeding rates. The David and Lucille Packard Foundation published a report summarizing more than 150 studies on the impact of family leave for parents of newborns. Among the report’s findings: 

  • Newborn family leave has significant positive effects on the health of young children, fathers’ involvement with their babies, and rates of breastfeeding. 
  • The extent of these benefits, including breastfeeding rates, often depend on the length of the leave, the extent to which it is paid, and other factors in the mother’s lives. 
  • Women are less likely to breastfeed exclusively, and they breastfeed their infants for a shorter period of time, the sooner they return to work after giving birth. 
  • The two most important determinants of whether or not parents take leave are if the leave is paid and job-protected.

The Baby Friendly Initiative of UNICEF reports that paid maternity leave can improve breastfeeding rates. In 2009, the group cited data from Elisabet Helsing, who founded a Norwegian breastfeeding support group, which revealed when 40 weeks of paid maternity leave was offered, around 80 percent of mothers continued to breastfeed at six months. In sharp contrast, in 1968 when just over 10 weeks of paid maternity leave was available, fewer than 10 percent of the mothers still breastfed after six months. 

The Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) also reports that returning to work is one of the reasons why mothers never start breastfeeding, or only do so for short durations. Moreover, the group finds the incidence of exclusive breastfeeding and its duration tends to be higher and longer in countries with long periods of maternity/parental leave, such as the Nordic countries, Hungary and the Czech Republic. 

Are there any signs of improvement for working mothers in the U.S.? 

Many American mothers who attempt to breastfeed say several factors impede their efforts, including the lack of time and privacy to breastfeed or express milk at the workplace.

The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act of 2010, which amended section 7 of the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), now requires that employers provide “reasonable break time for an employee to express breast milk for her nursing child for one year after the child’s birth each time such employee has need to express the milk.” Showing how little it takes for an employer to accommodate working mothers’ need for a private space to breastfeed is the “wellness rooms” presented by Joyce Lee in the Green Building Information Gateway. A space 7-feet by 7-feet, a work surface, a chair, an outlet, access to a sink, a locking door, and a mechanism for scheduling time to use the room is the minimum accommodation needed.

In January of 2011, Surgeon General Regina Benjamin issued a “Call to Action to Support Breastfeeding,” outlining steps that can be taken to remove some of the obstacles faced by women who want to breastfeed their babies. 

A month later, in 2011, Michelle Obama extended her “Let’s Move” campaign against childhood obesity by urging women to breastfeed, and called for the removal of barriers to nursing at work. The Obama administration also introduced more flexible work rules and tax breaks on breastfeeding equipment in order to encourage American women to breastfeed. 

High breastfeeding initiation rates show that most mothers in the U.S. want to breastfeed and are trying to do so, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The CDC notes however that low breastfeeding rates at 3, 6, and 12 months is evidence that mothers continue to face multiple barriers to breastfeeding, including the fact that many types of jobs and work schedules do not allow for the consistent and adequate pumping of breast milk. 

Establishing a work-life balance 

The fact remains more women are entering the workplace than ever before. Many of them are doing so out of financial necessity. With so many families dependent on the mother’s income, many of these working mothers must turn to costly day care centers or care providers to help them manage both motherhood and their careers. In fact, the Census Bureau reports there are more than 11 million children under the age of 5 in some type of child care arrangement, with over half in these centers.

Thus, the challenges working mothers face will unlikely result in fewer women in the labor market, but it may take a toll on how well women are able to balance their dual roles as mother and employee. One study reveals women are, in fact, more affected than men when these two worlds collide, resulting in higher levels of psychological distress. 

That 2011 study from the University of Toronto, published in the Journal of Health and Social Behavior, which analyzed information on 1,042 American workers nationwide, found that although women are equally adept as men at juggling the demands of work and home, they feel more guilt when contacted by bosses, colleagues, and clients at home. The study notes that the women’s guilt persists even if the work intrusion does not interfere with their family life. The study’s findings were consistent, regardless of the age of the women, their marital or parental status, or socioeconomic level. 

The researchers suggest that although women are an economic force to be reckoned with, they have different expectations from men over the boundaries separating work and family life, causing women to question or put down their role within their families. 

Although a handful of states, such as California, have family leave acts that are slightly broader than the federal statute, U.S. law provides no right to paid parental leave. This reality sets the U.S. apart from most other major industrialized nations, which offer broader and more comprehensive support for working parents. This reality has frustrated and negatively affected many working parents in the U.S., particularly mothers of young children who comprise a significant and growing part of the labor force. Despite the federal push for an increase in U.S. breastfeeding rates, research shows the lack of paid leave is working against this initiative. 

Last updated October 23, 2016

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