Work in the Only Industrialized Country Without Paid Maternity Leave

No sleep, lots of pumping, and just a pinch of insanity


Tara is a working mother of two, with a son just shy of two and a daughter, Baby C, born in late January 2016. I met Tara on Facebook when she contacted me after watching my TED talk on parental leave in the United States. She is one of the many American parents who have no access to parental leave, paid or unpaid. Tara’s time off with her new baby consisted of her 13 days of accumulated vacation time; she was back at work 20 days after giving birth.

The first half of this two-part series followed Tara and her family through the birth of Baby C and her 20 days off work. Here, we rejoin Tara on her first day back on the job. (Tara has asked that I not use her last name in order to protect her privacy and her job.)

Tara is a manager at a small business—small enough that Tara is ineligible for the Family Medical Leave Act’s unpaid leave provision. She is her family’s sole breadwinner. A painful chronic condition has left her husband unable to work, and he is the primary caregiver for the children. Tara’s commute is 90 minutes each way, but her employer has agreed to let her work from home for a while—exactly how long has been left undetermined—after the birth of Baby C.

Within a few minutes of starting her first day, Tara emails me: “I'm on the phone getting a new password for work. Not even 8 A.M. and my poor little girl is crying inconsolably. Doesn’t want the bottle, wants the breast. My heart is being ripped out already!”

Tara’s husband is able to get Baby C settled down with a bottle of expressed breast milk, but her first day proves to be a long and busy one.

At three weeks old, a baby can nurse as frequently as every hour throughout the day and night. Tara fits in nursing Baby C when she can during the workday. She knows from experience with her first baby that once she is back at the office, she will have difficulty finding the time to pump.

Tara also feels lucky to be able to work from home for now.

But working from home, with a nursing baby, does have some occupational hazards.

Luckily, Baby C missed the laptop.

Tara’s job entails a lot of time on the phone and on Internet chat with clients around the country. When her husband has to step out one day (I later learned that this “errand” was to attend a funeral), things get chaotic.

Tara finds that some of her clients are stunned when they realize she is back at work when her baby is so young.

California is one of three states in the U.S. (along with Rhode Island and New Jersey) that have implemented paid-family-leave laws. A national-level program called The FAMILY Act has also been proposed by Kirsten Gillibrand, a Democratic senator from New York.

The existing state programs vary in the details, but they follow a basic insurance model: Employees (and in New Jersey, employers as well) pay regularly into a fund built onto the state’s temporary disability-insurance program. When workers take leave for births, adoptions, sick relatives, or their own illnesses, they are paid out at a percentage of their typical income.

Implemented in 2004, California’s program, called the Paid Family Leave Act (PFL), is the oldest of these programs. It is funded by employee contributions, and provides 55 percent of wage replacement for up to six weeks. 1.7 million California PFL claims were filed from 2004 to March 2015; the vast majority of these claims were made by new parents.

I ask Tara if her family could afford a leave in which only 55 percent of her income were replaced.

Prior to the passage of PFL, the California Chamber of Commerce put the bill at the top of its list of “job killer” legislation and convened other business groups to oppose the bill. The group warned of the “cost and burden for all California employers, especially small employers.” A spokesperson for the CalChamber estimated that the law would cost California employers $2.5 billion a year.

So far, these predictions have not materialized. A 2011 study looked at the business impacts of the first six years of the California PFL program. About 90 percent of firms surveyed reported that the law had neutral or positive effect on “productivity, profit, morale, and costs.” The study noted the “surprising” finding that “small firms reported even fewer problems than large firms.” The California study also found that use of PFL had “a positive effect on [workers’] ability to arrange child care” and that it “doubled the median duration of breastfeeding for all new mothers who used it.”

A smaller study was conducted on the first two years of New Jersey’s paid-family-leave program where, unlike California, employers also make regular financial contributions. The New Jersey study found that a majority of businesses, including small businesses, “have experienced no effects on business profitability/performance and employee productivity.”

Proposed programs in Connecticut and Washington D.C., and a recently passed plan in New York state that will begin in 2018, go further than the three existing state-level paid-leave programs. (Washington state has also passed a policy but not implemented it and has no deadline to do so.) These proposals add job protection, a benefit currently offered only in the Rhode Island program. New York’s plan is funded by employee contributions and provides 12 weeks of leave. It will be phased in starting in January 2018, with wage replacement eventually rising to 67 percent. (The total amount paid to workers will be capped at two-thirds of New York state’s average weekly wage.) The proposal in Washington D.C. would provide 16 weeks of paid family leave and would rely solely on employer contributions. It would also utilize a “progressive paycheck-replacement calculation” so that low-income workers would receive close to 100 percent of their wages.

To hear the perspective of a small business owner, I spoke with Emily Strittmatter, the chief operating officer and part-owner of Fort Worth Urgent Care Management in Fort Worth, Texas.

Strittmatter’s business employs about 30 people. When an employee is expecting a baby, Strittmatter said, “we try to offer flexibility” in unpaid leave, but that it is “not financially possible” for the company to pay employees during family leave. She explained, “It would cost us at least $10,000 for a full-time employee to take 12 weeks [of leave]. The reality for a small business is that it would be very, very hard to do it based on the profit margin.”

But Strittmatter stressed, “It’s something we’d love to do. We believe that treating your employees with respect is the best way to run a great business. And (being able to offer paid leave) would help us competitively. ... We’re fighting for the same talent as big corporations, but with a lot less money to do it.”

That competition factor was echoed by Michelle Sternthal, the deputy director of policy and government affairs for The Main Street Alliance, an advocacy group for issues affecting small businesses. A 2015 Main Street Alliance survey of 1,163 small business owners found that only 13 percent offer any paid family leave, but 64 percent would support “a paid-family-leave policy that applies nationwide.” Sternthal argued that in terms of recruitment, paid family leave for small businesses would “level the playing field” with bigger companies.

Strittmatter expressed optimism about the existing and proposed state-level paid-leave programs: “That is so much more feasible than us trying to pay an employee’s leave ourselves. … I can’t imagine why any small business owner would be opposed to this if they understood how it works.”

I also spoke with David Karabinos, the CEO of health-care-technology company PointClear Solutions, which employs about 75 people in Georgia, Tennessee, Alabama, and New York. Karabinos said that his wariness about paid leave is purely financial: “If a small business gets in a cash-flow crunch because its customers aren’t paying on time, and it also has people out on maternity leave—even if it’s only four or five ladies in a company of 100 people—that’s huge.”

But when I briefly described the existing and proposed state-level family-leave insurance programs, Karabinos was somewhat more bullish. He said that “for those of us who don’t like taxes, the employer would not be in favor of [employer contributions].” But, he said, “The kinds of state plans that you’re talking about … if it costs the company a tiny amount of money per pay period, I think the company should consider doing it. For us to be successful, we have to attract smart, talented people … If this plan that we’re talking about could be leveraged for multiple family reasons, I think that’s an even better pitch.”

Some small businesses are not waiting for state or federal paid-family-leave programs to arrive. In 2014, Franz Spielvogel implemented 120 days of paid parental leave for all employees who work at least 24 hours per week at one of his restaurants—more than a dozen Laughing Planet Café locations in Oregon and Nevada. He told me that his program is working, even at an average cost of $15,000 for every employee who takes the full leave. “I have super loyal employees who are happy to come back to work,” he said. “More importantly, we haven’t had sick babies. [When a baby goes into daycare very early] you lose that employee a lot more because they have a child who gets sick a lot. We have lower retraining and rehiring costs, and it’s also proven to be a recruitment tool. Not just for women—people want to work with a company where the mission and values are aligned with their values. I wondered if this would be something I’d have to change a year from now, but I see it as a great investment.”

Still, in 2015, National Federation of Independent Businesses (NFIB) President Jack Mozloom said that the federation’s members “are strongly opposed” to a paid-leave mandate, and the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM), a membership organization for individual HR professionals, has taken a public position supporting only voluntarily provided paid-leave programs. NFIB did not respond to requests for comment on this story, but I spoke with Lisa Horn, SHRM’s Director of Congressional Affairs. Horn said that voluntary paid family leave is the better option because it allows employers, who “are closer to their employees than the government is,” to create programs that work for them. And, she said, as companies compete for talent, paid leave is part of an “HR recruitment and retention strategy.” But under this voluntary status quo, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, only 12 percent of working parents are offered paid leave by their employers.

Horn also expressed SHRM’s concerns about the long-term solvency of paid-family-leave insurance programs, saying, “The FAMILY Act is a tax on both employers and employees—although I’ll admit that the tax is pretty minimal. Just like with Social Security, you have solvency questions. If you have a large number of employees calling on this program, that tax will have to go up.”

But Ellen Bravo, the executive director of Family Values @ Work, a network of coalitions working for family-friendly workplaces, disagrees. “Five states have had temporary-disability-insurance plans … since the 1940s. None of them has ever had a problem with solvency,” she told me. “In the three states with paid family leave, rates have not gone up. [SHRM’s stance] is the same prediction of doom we hear from opponents on every new workplace standard, from minimal fire safety to ending child labor and instituting unpaid FMLA. It has no basis in fact.”

Support for paid family leave is not coming from only the more liberal-leaning areas of the political world. The American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank, published an essay this month highlighting the failure of FMLA to cover 40 percent of workers, noting that voluntary corporate paid leave often leaves out low-wage workers, and underscoring the importance of participation of women in the economy. The group noted that paid leave helps more women to return to the workforce after giving birth, saying that “not only do household earnings rise when women go back to work following leave; the overall economy benefits as well.”

Back at her home office, Tara is wrapping up another work week and starting to worry about her return to the office. She is anxious about being a 90-minute drive away, should anything happen to her husband, who is in charge of “two kids, three pets, and a chronic disease.”

But Tara also speaks often of her deep pride in her job. She loves her work, and she’s proud to contribute to the family as breadwinner. In her early postpartum exhaustion, she doesn’t like when she can’t perform to her own high standards.

Three weeks after her return to work, Tara has to go into the office for the first time, for a management meeting.

She brings her breast pump along.

Tara says that her manager and co-workers were surprised that she came back to work so quickly. I ask Tara if they understand that she simply can’t afford unpaid leave. She says, “I think people assume I’m just crazy and wanted to work that soon, or more likely fail to consider that we have bills to pay and not much in savings.”

A few days later, Tara texts me about a post she saw on a Facebook parents’ group she belongs to.

It turns out that this is mostly true: In order to support the animals’ socialization, bonding, and nutrition, half of U.S. states have laws stipulating that a puppy or kitten cannot be removed from its mother to be sold until it is between six and eight weeks of age. Baby C, a human, is nearing eight weeks of age now, and her mother has been back at work for a month.

For two months, I have been witness—by text—to Baby C’s entry into the world, Tara’s time at home with her, and Tara’s return to work. As we wrap up our text communications, I ask Tara whether it bothers her to see advances in paid leave come too late for her and her family.

In the end, Tara is focused on the dual jobs of work and motherhood. “I have to do what I have to do to pay the mortgage and keep food on the table,” she says. “I think we are an average American family, working to pay our debts and pave our own way.”

But still, she writes, “I really hope my kids get more time off to bond with their babies.”

This piece is the second in a two-part series about one woman’s maternity leave and her return to work. The first part is here.