Data from an investigative report by Sharon Lerner at In These Times magazine has revealed that as many as one in four employed pregnant women return to work less than two weeks after giving birth.
Taking so little time to heal and bond with a new baby can have severe consequences for the whole family, advocates say.
“No one who would really be thinking about the needs of a baby, let alone a mother who just gave birth, would contemplate that a period of two weeks’ leave in any way shape or form is adequate,” said Matthew Melmed, executive director of Zero to Three, a nonprofit that educates parents and policymakers on early child development.
A diverse body of research shows both mothers and fathers need significant amounts of time in the first four to seven months of a baby’s life to promote healthy long-term development, Melmed told reporters on a Tuesday press call. That time allows both parents to bond with the child, deal with doctors’ appointments, and adjust to all the changes needed to properly care for a new life, along with letting the mother heal.
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Lerner’s report noted that paid leave can be “a matter of life and death” for children, citing research that associated a 50-week extension of paid leave with a 20 percent drop in infant deaths.
Lerner stressed on the press call that this new report, an analysis of 2012 Department of Labor data by Abt Associates for In These Times, looks at data that wasn’t actually collected for the purposes of learning how much time new mothers take off from work.
There’s surprisingly little data on that subject, Lerner said—but this new analysis is “the best we’ve got.”
The data came from a Department of Labor survey of about 2,800 workers who took time off from work under the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), which guarantees 12 weeks of job-protected, but unpaid, time off for the care of a new child or a sick family member. Of those 2,800 people, 93 were women who took time off after childbirth. Nearly 12 percent of those women took off a week or less, and another 11 percent took one to two weeks off—23 percent, or nearly one in four, all told.
“Whether the number is slightly more or slightly less, it’s still disturbing,” Lerner said.
Lerner’s report profiles several mothers who went back to work a very short time after giving birth. Most did so out of financial necessity, and all experienced physical, emotional, or financial hardship as a result.
One woman went back to work with an infection from her cesarean section that hadn’t healed; another walked around in a haze, “walking really slow and wearing stretch pants and just making it happen”; another developed depression after working 14-hour days, including commute time, and crying while she pumped breast milk in her truck in the parking lot.
One woman meticulously planned the timing of her pregnancy, her disability insurance, and even the job she chose in order to make sure she had paid time off to take care of her second child—only to give birth so prematurely that her leave and insurance benefits hadn’t kicked in yet, forcing her to return to work two weeks after a c-section while worrying about how her son was doing in the neonatal intensive care unit.
“I believe that this report signals a national emergency,” said Ellen Bravo, executive director of Family Values @ Work, which advocates for family-friendly work policies like paid leave.
About 13 percent of U.S. workers have any access to paid family leave of any kind, whether to care for a new child or a sick family member. Less than half of U.S. workers have access to paid sick days, which women sometimes use to cobble together maternity leave. Not all workers have access to paid leave under the FMLA, and those who do often can’t afford to take unpaid time off.
Frustrated by the nation’s inconsistent patchwork of paid leave policies, advocates are pushing for national policies like the Family and Medical Insurance Leave Act (FAMILY Act).
The FAMILY Act would emulate successful models in states like California and New Jersey and set up a social insurance program guaranteeing up to 12 weeks of family leave that pays two-thirds of a worker’s normal income. The program would be funded by 0.2 percent paycheck contributions from employers and employees, and wouldn’t add to the federal budget.
“Paid family leave shouldn’t depend on where you live,” said Blue Carreker, organizer with the New York Paid Family Leave Insurance Campaign. “What we ultimately need is a federal policy, and we need it now—so no working American has to choose between caring for the people they love and their family’s economic security.”