Dear USA: It’s Time for a New Maternity Leave Policy

maternity leave vodaphoneLONDON – In the seemingly endless competition to see which country ranks “best” on a host of well-being indicators, here’s one race the United States will never win: its policy on maternity leave.

This point was driven home by the announcement last week by the telecommunications giant, Vodaphone, that the company will now guarantee a minimum of 16 weeks maternity leave for all new mothers. These women will also be able to work reduced hours (30 hour work weeks) at full pay for the first six months after they return to work. The kicker? This rule applies to all countries where Vodaphone operates, including those – like the United States, most African countries, and India – where statutory maternity leave policies are considerably lower.

Well, not to be a wet blanket, but here in the U.K., where I live, that headline wouldn’t even raise an eyebrow. In accordance with U.K. law, women can take up to one year of maternity leave; 39 weeks of that leave is paid (the first six weeks at full salary and the next 33 at a percentage of income), with the remainder unpaid.

At my current company, I’ve got colleagues right, left and center getting pregnant, having babies and resuming their posts a year later. The last time I got pregnant, back in 2003 – in the United States – I had to cobble together a string of sick days,  disability leave and then prevail upon my then bosses’ good graces to enable me stay out a few additional weeks beyond the 12 weeks (unpaid) guaranteed me through the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA).

At the time, I remember being incredibly anxious when I asked my boss to extend my (unpaid) leave from 12 to 16 weeks and doubly worried that when I came back and asked to work part time that they would assume that I wasn’t serious about the job and fail to back me. I had endless debates with friends about whether or not I should put in the request right away – because it would sound more credible – or only having “earned” back their trust. (Thankfully, they did back me in my request to go part time, though it took the better part of a year to sort out).

Here, in contrast, being pregnant is the most normal thing in the world — and it doesn’t jeopardize your job or your family’s economic security. In England, I’ve heard American maternity leave policy described as everything from “appalling” to “draconian.” A colleague of mine who specializes in maternal and child health literally couldn’t believe it when I described the FMLA to her, noting that it was “worse than most developing countries.” She’s right.

And the Brits aren’t even an outlier on this issue. According to a study by the Pew Research Center report issued a little more than a year ago, the median amount of fully-paid time off available to a mom for the birth of a child in most developed countries is about five-to-six months. And some go well beyond that. Estonia offers about two years of paid leave, and Hungary and Lithuania offer one-and-a-half years or more of fully-paid leave.

But it’s not just about women. Starting in April – and following the lead of other Scandinavian countries and Canada – couples living in mainland Britain will be able to divide almost all of the traditional maternity leave entitlement between them. They can divide the time between them in any combination, so that they alternate their leave or take it together. Moreover, this new “parental leave” policy applies not only to heterosexual couples, but to adoptive parents and same-sex couples.

In contrast, the United States finds itself in a very small group: countries that neither provide new parents with some sort of government sanctioned social welfare benefit nor require that businesses pay their employees even a portion of their normal salaries. (The FMLA does not apply to non-governmental companies with less than 50 employees). America is joined in this status by Suriname and Papua New Guinea and is the lone developed nation to hold this distinction.

In explaining its new “pioneering” policy, the Vodaphone human resources executive who crafted it pointed to the cost savings it will bring in areas such as recruitment and training expenses as well as lost talent and knowledge. She cited research from KPMG which has estimated that, globally, businesses lose $47 billion when women don’t stay in the workforce after having a baby. And while it is obviously expensive to pay for maternity leave, KPMG estimates that even factoring those costs in, companies will net annual savings of $19 billion, given that businesses would retain valued employees through such programs.

All true. And, of course, there are other reasons to think that this policy – in addition to being more humane – makes good economic sense as well. As Sheryl Sandberg and Adam Grant argue in a recent oped, any policies that enable companies to retain more women are good for business: “Women  bring new knowledge, skills and networks to the table, take fewer unnecessary risks, and are more inclined to contribute in ways that make their teams and organizations better.”

So who knows? Maybe Vodaphone is on the cusp of a new vanguard and in a few years’ time, their “pioneering” maternity leave policy will no longer look so pioneering.  It will be the norm.

Here’s hoping America isn’t on the maternity leave loser list much longer.

Delia Lloyd is an American writer based in London. She blogs about adulthood at realdelia.com.

Image courtesy of Pixabay.com

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