All In Favor of Improving Maternity Leave Policies?

Ed Frauenheim is on assignment.

In the Discussion Forum on our website, there’s a conversation being held that was started by one user who is wondering if he can legally terminate a pregnant employee if she uses up all of her FMLA allotted leave time after the birth of her child. This employee is currently using some FMLA leave time to recover from a “serious car accident.”

The answer is contingent on many factors including the state in which this employer is operating, the size of the employer, and the employer’s overall goodwill.

One of the forum’s consistent contributors recommended the pregnant employee look into short- and/or long-term disability options to extend the length of her recovery time. Even this option won’t result in a guaranteed extension of leave time.

Situations like this—where an employer wants to comply with the law but just ends up looking insensitive—don’t have to happen in the United States. We could simply catch up with the rest of the industrialized world and improve our maternity leave laws.

Out of all other industrialized nations in the world, the United States has the least generous maternity leave policies. Federal law allows women working for companies who employ 50 or more people to take 12 unpaid weeks off. A few states, like California, do provide more generous leave plans. Granted, there are companies with generous maternity leave polices. But clearly not every woman could or does work at one of these places.

It only feels right that a woman shouldn’t have to worry about her job security because of something her body does naturally. And no working woman who’s just delivered a baby should have to worry about having to find a trustworthy daycare facility for her 3-month-old infant.

An employee who doesn’t have to worry about these kinds of things would have a few less major distractions affecting her productivity at work. And employers wouldn’t have to worry about the cost of or the disruption incurred by a termination.

I’ll leave aside facts about the maternity leave laws of Sweden or the United Kingdom because the U.S. is light-years behind those countries on this issue, and instead I’ll focus on countries with similar lengths of time offered to new mothers: Canada, Germany and Brazil.

Canadian women get 17 weeks off. In Germany, women get 15 weeks off. And Brazilian women get 120 days—or roughly 17 weeks—off after they deliver a baby. As stated above, American women get 12 weeks off.

The biggest difference between these four maternity policies is that women in Canada, Germany and Brazil get at least 55 percent of their wages paid to them while they’re out of work. Canadian women get 55 percent of their total wages paid to them for 15 out of the 17 weeks they get for maternity leave, plus 35 weeks of paid parental leave. And German and Brazilian women receive full compensation while out of the office. Even in Tunisia, the country with the shortest maternity leave (30 days), a new mother is paid her full wages while she is out. There is no law mandating compensation for American women on maternity leave.

And I’m not sure there has to be. Problems like the one that got me started thinking about this issue could be resolved without government intervention. Companies could simply go beyond the pregnancy discrimination laws and FMLA leave policies and give their employees longer and compensated maternity leave.

Corporate America is richer than it’s ever been. The stock market has hit record highs recently; executive compensation has skyrocketed while the wages of average workers have virtually stagnated over the past thirty years, even as productivity increases.

The cost of living goes up when you add another human to a family. Leaving a woman without at least some percentage of her paycheck while she’s taking care of a newborn just seems irresponsible.

At a time when businesses are expecting more from their employees than ever before, I feel a little reciprocity is in order. I mean, why not? Improving maternity leave policies would result in more loyal, dedicated employees.

Max Mihelich is Workforce’s associate editor. Follow Mihelich on Twitter at @workforcemax. Comment below or email editors@workforce.com.