The United States remains the only country among 40 OECD countries whose federal government does not mandate employers nationwide to offer new mothers paid maternity leave. This has been a cause for much debate between opposing opinions regarding the current status of maternity leave in America. President Biden came close to introducing a landmark national paid family leave policy before it was dropped from his infrastructure bill. Therefore, the questions remain: Would paid maternity leave have a positive or a negative effect on women’s quality of life? What about on society overall?
Here are three arguments for and three arguments against paid maternity leave.
Three Reasons why Paid Maternity Leave is Important
It’s good for business
Companies that offer paid maternity leave found that it’s good for their business. Women who can take paid maternity leave are more productive, working a reported 15 to 20% more hours during their baby’s second year than women who didn’t take leave. Paid maternity leave also increases retention rates among companies. Women who can take paid maternity leave are more likely to return to their job at the end of their leave period. The cost of paying an additional ten weeks (or whatever the agreed-upon time period is) of salary is far less than the overall cost of finding, hiring and training new staff to replace women who abandon their job after giving birth.
It lowers the burden on welfare
Many people who are opposed to paid maternity leave argue that it will cause an unfair hike in payroll taxes to cover the extra government payouts. But consider the welfare costs of not taking maternity leave. Many parents can’t afford to live on one income, even for just a few weeks. They slip into credit card debt and might be forced to turn to food stamps and other welfare payments. A report from the United States Department of Labor discovered that approximately 15% of people who took unpaid or partly-paid leave turned to welfare payments. A Rutgers University study in New Jersey, where there is state-mandated paid maternity leave, found that women who took paid leave were 40% less likely to take public assistance or food stamps than women who didn’t take leave.
It’s important for women’s health
Having a baby is a rigorous experience that takes its toll on women’s physical and mental health. Paid maternity leave would allow these women the time needed to heal, or at least start healing. However, many women who have to return to work just a few days or weeks after giving birth have to lift heavy items and/or stand for long periods of time, even though this could be dangerous for their ongoing health. Even the increasing numbers of women who give birth by C-section often need to return to work before the recommended period of convalescence.
Paid maternity leave has been found to lower the risks of post-partum depression. Being forced back to work by fear of losing their jobs or the financial pressure of living on one paycheck can seriously impact women’s health for years after giving birth. Not to mention, every extra month of maternity leave can be linked to a 13% reduction in the infant mortality rate. Society’s values of loyalty and responsible parenting should urge employers to stand by those who risk their physical and mental health to give birth to and nurture children, who are America’s future.
Three Reasons why Paid Maternity Leave is a Bad Idea
It’s bad for gender roles
Paid maternity leave can reinforce stereotyped gender roles in a way that’s harmful to both women and men. If only women are paid to stay at home with their new baby, it strengthens the assumption that it’s solely a woman’s job to care for the children and look after the house. It reinforces the expectation that men aren’t interested in spending time with their children.
Today, many men want to be hands-on fathers and look forward to spending time caring for their infants and small children. However, without paid paternal leave, they barely get a chance to see their babies on a working day. More and more research has come to light that shows long-term benefits of paternity leave for fathers, children and families. So, in addition to them missing out on bonding with their babies, as the wage gap increases because of maternity leave, fathers will only have to work harder to make up for their partner’s drop in pay.
It’s bad for women’s income level
Paid maternity leave sounds good for women, but it can actually harm their job prospects. Businesses may not like to admit it, but they would be less likely to hire women of child-bearing age just to avoid facing the extra cost of paying their maternity leave. People argue that discrimination laws would prevent this from happening, but it’s often almost impossible to prove why a company hired one person rather than another. Alternatively, all women would end up being paid a lower wage to balance out the expected cost of maternity leave. Paid maternity leave would be especially unfair on women who don’t have children, who would be paid a lower wage without even getting the benefit of taking leave.
It’s bad for small businesses and entrepreneurs
Although large corporations can afford to offer paid maternity leave and enjoy higher retention rates because of their family-friendly policies, smaller companies just can’t compete. A small business with only a few workers can’t afford to keep on paying someone who isn’t working for months. It would be too expensive for the business to hire a temp to cover the new mother’s work; then they’d have to pay two salaries for the same amount of work. Government-mandated paid maternity leave could severely harm the chances of small businesses to flourish, which has a knock-on effect on every area of the economy.
Bottom line: Should America join the ranks of nations offering paid maternity leave? Is this even a federal issue, or is it better left up to market forces and individual choice to decide?