The federal family and medical leave act (FMLA) guarantees eligible employees up to 12 weeks per year of unpaid leave after birth or adoption, to care for a sick family member or because of their own serious health condition. That doesn't sound too bad, until you pay attention to the fine print.
First, the leave is unpaid. If you are a low wage worker who is struggling to make it on her income as is (especially with all the additional medical and other expenses that a baby brings), how are you going to afford 3 months without a paycheck?
Second, who is an eligible employee? You have to meet all of the following requirements.
- Have worked at least 12 months for your employer.
- Have worked at least 1250 hours during the preceding 12 months (~25 hours per week).
- Be employed by an employer that has at least 50 employees within 75 miles.
As for me, while we've scrimped and save and could do without a paycheck for a while, I am not an eligible employee so I don't qualify for any leave. While I've been at this university seemingly forever, I was on a fellowship for my PhD. So while I received a paycheck from the university, I wasn't technically an employee until September. Hence, the FMLA does me absolutely no good. And it probably doesn't do many grad students any good, since here (and most universities?) restrict TAs and RAs to 20 hours a week or less, nicely excluding them from a lot of benefits including FMLA protection.
What about other policies and laws?
- This state has their own version of the FMLA with a more generous protection. You don't have to work for your employer for 12 months - only 6. But that still excludes me. In fact, other than finishing my Ph.D. earlier and abandoning my last fellowship paychecks, there's no way I could qualify for any FMLA.
- Some employers offer their own unpaid or paid leave plans. But at least at this state university there are no provisions for family leave other than the state FMLA plan.
- Some employers automatically grant short-term disability insurance or offer it for their employees to opt into. Short-term disability insurance will give you ~2 weeks of partially paid leave, since you are disabled after giving birth. However, in my case, I had to opt into the insurance and there was a waiting period before I would become eligible for benefits. I didn't get to enroll in benefits until November 1 (despite starting employment in September) and the waiting period was 4 months. By March 1st, I'll no longer be immediately post-partum and thus wouldn't be able to claim the disability. So I didn't even bother to enroll.
- California is the only state with paid family leave. They do it through their state disability insurance and pay you ~55% of your normal pay for up to 6 weeks with no requirements about length of employment, etc.. Finally, there's some reason to move to California. Too bad I didn't.
So officially, I'll be coming back to work less than a month after my baby is born. But I won't really. There is a saving grace to my situation. Remember how I worked on the post-doc stuff while I was still a grad student? Actually, I did quite a bit of work (>3 weeks), including several trips, while I was being paid off my fellowship. Basically, I unofficially banked that time. I told my boss that I am using that time as maternity leave time, giving me another 6 weeks off. And because I have the most understanding and fair boss I can imagine, he didn't even bat an eyelid.
Thanks to the work I did last spring and this summer, I'll be taking ~9 weeks off when Mini makes her big appearance. I think I agreed to be reachable if the need arises (our project has very demanding funders) while I am on leave. After that, I'll be coming back part time for at least a while. We really want to avoid having Mini in daycare while she's so little, so I think fish and I will try to juggle our work schedules for a couple of months more.
But, while the end is reasonably happy for me, my experiences have really opened my eyes to the inequities of our family leave system. How can anyone expect a woman who has just had a baby to go back to work in a few days? (See the horrifying story at the bottom of this post for someone who's situation didn't work out as well as mine will.)
So it was entirely appropriate last week when I got a call to action from Moms Rising. I'm going to use this blog post to form the basis for my comments. Please share your own experiences and concerns. Here's what Moms Rising has to say:
Now the FMLA, even though it's unpaid leave and only applies to those who work
for bigger companies, is at real risk of being scaled back when it actually
should be expanded. As you may know, the current law is actually quite weak in
comparison to the rest of the world. A Harvard study of 168 countries found that
only 4 don't offer some form of paid leave for new mothers--Papua New Guinea,
Swaziland, Lesotho, and the United States of America.
THE LOWDOWN: After years of corporate opposition, the U.S. Department of Labor is now seeking comments on the FMLA as it reviews the law. The FMLA could be scaled back if supportive citizen comments aren't plentiful. We need you to put
your tennis shoes on for a "volley" of typing in support of the FMLA.
TELL THE DEPARTMENT OF LABOR TO RETAIN & EXPAND THE FMLA: Submit your comments via e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org
*And, after you've sent in your comments to the Department of Labor, please also
post your comments and share any stories at http://www.momsrising.org/node/453.
...We need as many mothers--and those who have mothers--to let the Department of Labor know the FMLA is good policy for families and businesses. Share your support for the FMLA, and any personal experiences, with the Department of Labor. Tell them the FMLA is a true success story that should be retained and expanded, not scaled back. Instead of reviewing a program which is already working well, the
Department of Labor should be putting our energy into expanding the FMLA to
cover more workers, and into making paid family and medical leave available to all.
SOME POINTS TO TALK ABOUT: Want to support the FMLA, but not quite sure what to say? The National Partnership for Women & Families has terrific detailed
information available for you to check out at http://www.nationalpartnership.org/FMLA. And, we at MomsRising have some
talking points of our own to share:
- The FMLA is a good start, but we can do better. The ability for parents to
take leave without fear of loosing their job is important. That said, "Paid
leave significantly decreases infant mortality, while other leave has no
significant effect. This suggests that if leave is provided without adequate
payment and job protection, parental leave-taking behavior may not be very
responsive.... As a result, other leave does not have a significant effect on
improving infant health," notes an Economic Journal report. In other words, it's
paid family leave that makes the big difference.
- Instead of reviewing a program which is already working well, the Department
of Labor should be putting energy into expanding the FMLA to cover more workers (only 46.5% of private sector workers are currently covered under the law
because it only applies to those who work in companies with 50 or more
employees), and into making paid family and medical leave available to all.
*A special note about a common misconception regarding who pays for paid family
leave: Paid leave need not be a burden for business. In California, the only
state with paid family leave, the funding for paid leave comes from a small
employee paycheck deduction, not out of the pocket of businesses.
YOUR SUPPORT & COMMENTS ARE NEEDED: Please send in a note of support for the FMLA today to the Department of Labor at email@example.com (And then also cross-post your comment and any stories on the MomsRising blog at
*Excerpt from The Motherhood Manifesto, Chapter 2: Maternity & Paternity Leave
(Paid Family Leave). You can read all of this chapter online for free at:
The OB put Selena on a fetal monitor, found out she really was in labor, and
then tried unsuccessfully with several different medications to stop the early
labor. Selena's baby boy, Connor, was born six weeks early the next morning.
Their baby was rushed out of the room and up to the Neonatal Intensive Care
unit, Selena's husband rushed up with him, and Selena found herself alone in a
hospital bed realizing that she was going to go home well before her baby. She
had a tough decision to make.
After their son stabilized, Selena's husband James came back down to her room.
They had another difficult talk about finances and Selena's leave from work.
They couldn't afford for her to take more time off than the couple of weeks
originally planned, but both wanted Selena to have the most time possible to
bond with her son. With her son stable in the hospital, but not knowing how long
until he could come home, the choice was between Selena taking time off when he
was in the hospital or waiting to take time off when the baby was released from
the hospital and could come home. "There was no way we could afford for me to
take off more than we planned," recalls Selena.
They made a difficult decision: They decided it would be best if she waited to
take time off until the baby came home. So after Selena had the baby on
Thursday, she was released from the hospital Friday, and was back at her desk on
Monday morning. "It was the hardest two and a half weeks of my life," she says
recalling the ache of being away from her newborn son and the rigorous family
schedule at that time.
Selena shares a fairly common experience with new mothers across America—one of financial difficulties and time stretched too thin with the birth of a child.
This experience isn't as common in other nations. In fact, the United States is
the only industrialized country in the world that doesn't have paid leave other
than Australia (which does give a full year of guaranteed unpaid leave to all
women, compared with the only twelve weeks of unpaid leave given to those who
work for companies with more than fifty employees in the U.S.). A full 163
countries give women paid leave with the birth of a child. Fathers often get
paid leave in other countries as well—forty-five countries give fathers a right
to paid parental leave...