A working woman who is expecting faces a litany of tough questions before giving birth: Can she afford to take maternity leave? Will her employer compensate her if she does? Will the government help stabilize her pay?
Most industrialized countries have laws ensuring that mothers can stay home to care for their newborns without losing pay. But in the United States, the only federal law that protects a new mother’s right to time off is the Family and Medical Leave Act, which guarantees that she will still have a job when she returns from maternity leave, not that she’ll be paid while she’s away.
But because the law applies only to companies of a certain size, a large swath of workers are not covered by the law, and they’re disproportionately low-income. By one measure, just four out of 10 mothers in the U.S. take maternity leave, and affordability is the biggest factor that prevents them from doing so. Yet even when employers are required by law to provide paid maternity leave, as is the case in six states and the District of Columbia, many women still choose not to take it. This could be because they can’t afford to lose overtime or bonus pay while they’re away, or it could be because they’re simply not aware of the option: Six years after California passed a paid-family-leave law, one poll found that only 36 percent of voters in the state were aware of it. And that’s in spite of the evidence that maternity leave has health benefits for babies and moms.