Maternity, paternity leave rates in the U.S. remain low

(Reuters Health) - The proportion of U.S. women taking maternity leave has remained about the same for the past two decades, according to a new study.

Laws mandating paid leave in four states and an expanding national economy have had no impact on the proportion of working women who take maternity leave, which remains at about 678 per 10,000 births, an economist reports in the American Journal of Public Health.

“The U.S. economy has expanded dramatically since the middle of the 1990s,” Jay Zagorsky, from the Ohio State University Center for Human Resource Research in Columbus, told Reuters Health. “Since 1994, it’s gone up about 66 percent after adjusting for inflation, and none of those benefits have flowed to women on maternity leave.”

The Family and Medical Leave Act entitles employees of companies covered by the law to 12 weeks of unpaid time off during the first 12 months after the birth of a baby or the adoption of a child.

But the U.S. Department of Labor estimated in 2015 that only 12 percent of private sector workers have access to paid family leave, Zagorsky writes.

He found that men are increasingly taking opportunities for paternity leave, whether paid or unpaid, but the total numbers are still tiny.

“There’s a tremendous growth in paternity leave, but we started at such a really low base, like 6,000 men per month, and now we’re up to 22,000,” Zagorsky said.

But there are over 300,000 babies born in the U.S. each month, he said, “so we’re up to 22,000 men taking care of newborn children, out of a third of a million each month.”

For the study, he analyzed data from a monthly national survey that includes about 60,000 randomly selected households.

Based on data for the years 1994 through 2015, he found that about 273,000 new mothers took time off during a typical month, and the rate remained fairly steady over time.

Women on maternity leave tended to be older than the average woman who gave birth, as well as more educated, more likely to be married and more likely to be white.

Currently, only about half of all maternity leaves are paid, but there has been a slow upward trend, Zagorsky said. “If you average that trend, it’s a quarter of 1 percent a year, which means every four years we go up one percentage point. Every eight years we go up two percentage points, and so on.”

At this rate, it would take roughly 200 years for the U.S. to catch up with 98 other countries that require working women to receive at least 14 weeks of paid time off after a baby is born, he added.

“The newborn period is a naturally incredible moment in a family’s life,” said Dr. Jillian Parekh, a primary care pediatrician at Montefiore Medical Center in New York City who was not involved in the study.

“It’s always a very intense, emotional experience,” she said. “Mostly positive, but it’s also a really difficult time, and newborns are challenging. There is exhaustion, and there are lots of factors that make it a tough experience.”

Parekh thinks it’s important for mothers and fathers to have time to recover physically from the experience and to bond with the baby. “And have time to form those most important relationships in the most formative time in a newborn’s life.”

The first three months of life are critical for newborns to secure an attachment with their parents, and for their physical and emotional needs to be met, Parekh added. “I’ve just always felt strongly that it’s sort of setting up a good pattern and a good family relationship that can hopefully continue throughout childhood,” she said.

A lot of people rely on other family members if they don’t have paid leave and there have been new laws that have been put in place to make pumping and breastfeeding at work possible, she noted.

“I always try to empower my patients, and my friends, and my family, to ask more and to see what’s really available and to see if there’s something creative that can be done within your maternity leave rules,” Parekh said.

SOURCE: American Journal of Public Health, online January 19, 2017