Moms in ‘survival mode’ on maternity leave

A bill in Congress would make more women eligible for a benefit usually offered only at large companies.

BLOOMBERG NEWSJanuary 20, 2014 

WASHINGTON — Roxanne Vivanco just returned to her banking job in Ramsey, N.J., after spending 12 weeks with her newborn daughter without having to deplete her savings.

The 36-year-old community development manager at Toronto- Dominion Bank was able to tap a state-administered benefit that finances family leave through employee payroll contributions. “It was a blessing,” said the mother of three. The money “helped with taking care of our house bills as well as food for the newborn and my other kids.”

Vivanco considers herself fortunate in a nation where only 12 percent of workers get paid time off to care for a baby or a sick parent, according to the U.S. Labor Department. Rhode Island this month became the third state to start a paid family leave insurance program, which was initiated by California in 2004 and by New Jersey in 2009.

The bill introduced last month in Congress would create a similar model nationally.

Papua New Guinea is the only other nation that doesn’t provide or require a paid maternity leave, according to information on 185 countries compiled by the United Nations’ International Labor Organization. It recommends 14 weeks off at a level no lower than two-thirds of previous earnings.

The safety net could encourage more mothers to return to the labor force at a time when the female participation rate in the U.S. is at a 20-year low. Paid leave policies help explain why the share of working women in countries such as Germany and Spain surpassed the U.S. over the two decades ending in 2010, says Cornell University economics professor Francine D. Blau.

California’s program increased the probability that mothers in that state would be back at work within nine months to a year after giving birth, according to research by Christopher J. Ruhm, professor of public policy and economics at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, and Charles L. Baum, professor of economics at Middle Tennessee State University in Murfreesboro.

“It’s probably an increase in job continuity,” Ruhm said. “Before, maybe you had to quit your job if you wanted to spend time at home with a baby.”

Most women in the U.S. must choose between taking an unpaid leave, trying to combine work with family duties or quitting work.

Eliza Kane, 32, is among them. Shortly after informing her supervisors she was pregnant, Kane says she was told in April her part-time job at the French Cultural Center of Boston was being eliminated. Catheline H. van den Branden, president and executive director of the French Cultural Center, declined to comment on personnel matters.

After trying to find new employment without success, Kane says she now hopes to stay at home until her baby, born in September, is at least six months old.

“I’m just in a survival mode right now,” she said. “I think there needs to be a standard parental leave that is supported by some sort of public fund.”

Legislation introduced by Rep. Rosa DeLauro of Connecticut and Senator Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, both Democrats, would do just that. It seeks to establish an independent trust fund within the Social Security Administration, financed by a new payroll contribution from employees and employers of 0.2 percent of wages, to pay benefits and administrative costs.

Workers would be able to take a partial paid leave of up to 12 weeks for the birth or adoption of a child, their own serious health condition or that of a child, spouse or domestic partner.

The National Federation of Independent Business opposes the bill because it would remove the flexibility businesses now have in the type of leave to offer, according to Kate Bonner, manager of legislative affairs at the Nashville, Tennessee-based trade group.

Nationally, women at companies of more than 50 employees can take up to 12 weeks of unpaid time after childbirth under the Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993. Federal and other government employees can also take uncompensated time. Less than a fifth of state and local government workers had access to paid family leave, according to Labor Department data.

To retain women workers, some large companies have adopted more generous policies. Goldman Sachs provides 16 weeks of paid maternity leave.

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