Gaps in Access to Paid Leave are Significant, Sustained - and Unacceptable

Debra L. Ness

November 15, 2011 | Work and Family

The Census Bureau released a report last week that every family and every lawmaker should note. Maternity Leave and Employment Patterns of First-Time Mothers: 1961-2008 builds on data collected over the past 40 years, adding new data from 2006 to 2008, to offer a new look at how families in this country are managing work when babies are born.

The results are striking. The report finds that use of paid leave among first-time mothers has been largely stagnant for nearly a decade. From 2006 to 2008, more than half of first-time mothers either quit their jobs or took unpaid leave. Some women are financially secure enough to quit their jobs to spend more time with their babies without falling into poverty or enduring hardship - but for most women, quitting a job or taking unpaid leave means risking their families' economic security.

What is especially striking about the new data is the stark divide based on socioeconomic status. The new report finds that two-thirds of first-time mothers with bachelor's degrees or higher (66 percent) take paid leave, compared to only one in five mothers without high school diplomas (19 percent).

We know from working on this issue for years that working moms who don't take paid leave aren't ignoring the option to do so; they simply have no access to paid leave. In fact, the Bureau of Labor Statistics' National Compensation Survey reports that a mere 11 percent of working people in this country have access to paid leave through their employers, and fewer than 40 percent have access to employer-provided short-term disability insurance.

Context is important here. The new Census data goes through 2008 - so it does not cover the recession and jobless recovery the last few years have brought. The cutbacks and job insecurity most families are experiencing now aren't reflected. Since the recession hit, more women are working part time. The new Census report tells us that only 21 percent of part-time working mothers take paid leave, compared to 56 percent of those who work full time. So women who used to have paid leave in their full-time jobs may have lost it altogether when they transitioned to part-time work.

This report is one more reminder that our workplace policies are not advancing to meet the needs of 21st century workers. Access to paid leave is a fundamental workplace policy guaranteed in every developed country except the United States. It's time to change that.

Women who take paid leave work longer into their pregnancies and return to work sooner. That's good for families' short- and long-term economic security, good for businesses and good for our economy.

Now more than ever, it's time for Congress to adopt the national paid leave standard the country needs.


Search the Blog