After I welcomed my first child, a little boy who hated sleep as much as I loved it, there was no way I was returning to work one day less than the 12 weeks FMLA allotted me.
I was one of the “lucky” ones, able to forgo any salary for a few unpaid weeks. But the staggering results from a new study may prove that many women can’t swing that: The total number of moms going on maternity leave, about 273,000 a month, hasn’t changed in 22 years. No decrease, which I see as a positive. But no increase, either, which is puzzling.
Even the author of the study, which appeared in the American Journal of Public Health, was surprised. “The number of companies offering maternity leave is increasing, so I would have expected the number of women [taking maternity leave] to have gone up, but I’m not seeing it in the data,” said Jay Zagorsky, a research scientist at The Ohio State University Center for Human Resource Research. That data came from the U.S. Census Bureau’s Current Population Survey, which has been keeping tabs on maternity and paternity leave trends each month from 1994 through 2015. This status quo is in spite of more employers offering paid leave voluntarily and states like California, New Jersey and Rhode Island mandating that employers offer it.
Even though more women are eligible for partially paid parental leave, the reason so many aren’t taking advantage could be because they need every cent of their full paychecks to afford their expensive new arrival. For instance, Californian moms are eligible for 55 percent of their usual pay, up to $1,173 a week. But halving one’s salary as expenses rise doesn’t seem to add up. As a result, moms are running right back to their jobs, whether or not they’d choose to if they had unlimited funds.
Zagorsky is interested in seeing if and how President Trump’s plan—for working moms to receive six weeks of partially paid leave—motivates more women to take any time off work. “We have numbers from before—and then we can see what happens after the legislation is passed, how long it takes to kick in and whether the legislation is effective or not.”
At Working Mother’s 100 Best Companies, the average number of weeks of fully paid leave offered is steadily rising, now at nine—and with it, the number of weeks moms at these companies take, now at 10. Zagorsky’s study and our own research seem to suggest that fully paid leave may be the key to getting more moms to take that time off. Of course, it’s only one piece of this very complicated puzzle. Supportive companies, where managers and human resource teams actively encourage moms to take leave and help transition them out and back into the office, are important as well. But until all moms can get their full pay while they care for their newborns, it seems like we won’t see all moms taking time off work to do so.