“Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.” Emma Lazarus’ words from her poem “The New Colossus” grace the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty. They should also grace the front door of most US businesses to welcome mothers back to the office after giving birth or adopting. After all, the United States, land of opportunity, ranks at the bottom when compared to most other countries’ maternity leave policies. As a result, having a baby while working leaves most women tired, poor and yearning to breathe free. Lady Liberty’s torch guided immigrants coming to America. Who will guide our working women?
Yes the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) of 1993 provides unpaid leave up to 12 weeks with guaranteed job protection but it doesn’t protect workers in companies with fewer than 50 employees or who have worked less than 1,250 hours at their current employer. And, it doesn’t require employers to pay workers while on leave. As a result, it is estimated that a mere 8 percent of workers have paid leave benefits in this country.
Workers who are not covered by FMLA are subject to state laws and employers’ private policies. This week in Massachusetts, the Supreme Court ruled employees are allowed eight weeks of unpaid leave to give birth or adopt a child but after eight weeks of leave the law does not protect their job. According to a Boston Globe article, Boston lawyer John J. Barter, said the ruling was “a victory for business interests.” He couldn’t be more wrong.
The reality of working mothers can be brutal. Many women are forced to cobble together sick time and vacation to cover leave. As a result, they return to work knowing they have no time available in the near future for taking a break or spending time with their family. Often they return to work before their bodies have fully recovered from childbirth. A 2008 report from the National Bureau of Economic Research, showed women who return to work too soon are at higher risk for depression and poor health. Most certainly they are sleep deprived which affects their job performance. And financially, they are at risk. According to Moms Rising, an organization dedicated to building a family-friendly America, “having a baby is a leading cause of poverty spells in the U.S. — when income dips below what’s needed for basic living expenses” and “51% of new mothers lack any paid leave — so some take unpaid leave, some quit, some even lose their jobs.”
So while Barter, in referring to how the Massachusetts law is applied, sees a victory for businesses, he is missing the bigger issue. A growing body of evidence shows a correlation between happiness and workplace productivity. Sick, tired, financially-stressed workers are unlikely to be very happy. And that affects a business’ bottom line. So with more women than men on the national payroll and 66 percent of women with children age 17 or younger working, doesn’t it behoove American businesses to move beyond baseline legislation and implement family-friendly policies that work for their employees, and ultimately them? That would be true victory.