From the I-guess-it's-no-surprise-but-still-tremendously-disappointing files, the Wall Street Journal's Sue Shellenbarger reports that companies are pulling back on paid maternity leave benefits. As companies try to rein in benefits and disability costs, it makes sense that full pay during maternity leave would be among the benefits to be whittled away, but it it is a darn shame.
To be clear, the federal Family and Medical Leave Act provides all employees with the right to take unpaid leave to care for a newborn baby or an ill family member. But about a decade ago, many companies were distinguishing themselves in their quest to hold onto talented employees by offering 100-percent paid leave post-childbirth, making it not only possible for women to take a leave to care for their newborns but also providing added incentive to return as soon as possible to an employer which had gone above and beyond. In 1998, 27 percent of companies offered full pay for childbirth leave, according to the Families and Work Institute. Now, 16 percent of employers do, based on a sample of 1,100 employers.
During those same years, the average maximum length of job-guaranteed leaves for moms dropped from 15.2 weeks from 16.1 weeks. Leaves for dads fell from 13.1 weeks to 12.6 weeks.
"This comes despite research showing attentive nurturing has particular developmental power in a baby's first year, and that longer leaves can ease postpartum depression in some mothers," Shellenbarger writes. "The pattern heightens the need for parents to plan carefully for time off post-childbirth."
Shellenbarger found in a poll she conducted for her column that about one in five couples rely on credit cards and loans to fund time off from work to care for their babies. A tough way to start out as a family.
Since only one-third of employers offer some kind of paid leave to employees, according to the Society of Human Resources Management, and not all of them offered 100-percent pay at any point, this may not seem like a big deal because so many people were never offered these benefits. But it signals the reversal of a pretty important trend, one that supported parents and babies at a really crucial and relatively short point in their lives. Since major companies have the power to set a course for how other employers treat employees, the trend toward fully paid leaves was a good one. Faced with the need to tighten budgets, companies are reverting to treating maternity leave solely as short-term disability leave, which typically pays a fraction of a salary for the duration.