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Little Movement on Maternity Leave

New research shows the percentage of women taking maternity leave has stagnated over the past 20-plus years. What can HR do to get that number moving in the right direction?

Monday, March 6, 2017
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Despite a host of factors that would suggest otherwise, the number of U.S. women taking maternity leave has changed very little in the last two-plus decades.

So says new research from Ohio State University, which finds that, on average, roughly 273,000 women in the United States took maternity leave each month between the years 1994 and 2015, with no trend upward or downward.

In addition, the study -- based on data culled from the Current Population Survey, a monthly poll conducted by the U.S. Census Bureau -- found that most women taking maternity leave were not paid. Less than half (48 percent) were compensated for leave in 2015. And, paid maternity leave is increasing, but only at a rate of less than one percentage point per year, according to study author Jay Zagorsky, a research scientist at OSU's Center for Human Resource Research.

In the 22-year span Zagorsky studied, the U.S. economy has grown by more than 60 percent, and three states -- California, New Jersey and Rhode Island -- have implemented paid family leave legislation. Still, he "was not particularly surprised to find maternity leave has stagnated since all the other benefits workers have gotten, and their overall pay [has] also been stuck at roughly the same levels."

In some cases, expecting parents simply might not be aware of the parental leave afforded to them once they've welcomed a baby into their home, says Brenna Haviland Shebel, director of healthcare cost and delivery at the Washington-based National Business Group on Health.

"For example, a company might not offer a formal parental leave benefit," says Shebel, "but the employee could take unpaid leave under the Family Medical Leave Act."

And, even when paid leave is an option, financial concerns might leave some workers hesitant to take advantage of it, she says.

"Maternity leave typically pays out a percentage of an employee's earnings, whether a graduated amount or a flat amount, through the entire leave period. Some employees are unable to shoulder the financial burden of taking a 40-percent pay cut."

In summarizing the study's findings, Zagorsky says the results of his research "suggest [U.S. employers] have a long way to go to catch up with the rest of the world as far as providing for new mothers and their children."  

There are steps that employers and HR can take, however, to get the needle moving in the right direction.

"Expand the definition of parent," says Shebel. "This will shift the culture of 'only certain moms take leave' to the expectation that all parents should take leave. Employers that have made the cultural shift have greater overall success in leave rates."

She also advises creating affinity groups for new and expecting parents "to help support the employee as well as to create a means for promoting the availability of supportive programs like maternity and parental leave."

In addition, companies taking a paid-leave approach "have seen no [changes] or only positive changes in profitability, turnover and morale," says Shebel, noting that "there are several studies showing that women who go on maternity leave are more likely to return to work."

In terms of better informing employees as to the leave options at their disposal, "companies can work with HR managers and generalists to educate the workforce to ensure they know which benefits are available to them," she says. "Since this individual might be the first to know about an employee's pregnancy, he or she is primed to deliver information on various benefits, leave and programs early on, allowing for plenty of time for the employee, her manager and HR to plan for maternity leave."

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Nancy Puleo, a Boston-based partner in Posternak Blankstein & Lund's employment law and healthcare practice groups, urges a two-fold approach to boosting the number of female employees taking maternity leave.

"One, provide a paid leave benefit, or a more generous paid leave benefit," says Puleo, noting that the OSU study found that women who do take maternity leave tend to be economically better off than those who do not.

"Therefore, it is clearly an economically driven phenomenon."

Indeed, offering paid leave would be a critical first step, says Zagorsky.

"My research shows that only half of all new mothers in the U.S. get paid leave," he says. "The fact that only half of those on leave get paid suggests to me that getting more companies to offer paid maternity leave instead of unpaid leave would boost the number of new mothers taking time off to bond with their newborn child."

Beyond paid leave, employers must also "foster a culture where working mothers are valued, and [in which] taking maternity leave is not viewed as a chink in their armor, so to speak," adds Puleo.

In addition to the financial concerns associated with maternity leave, "women might be reluctant to take leave, and opt for their husbands to do so instead, due to concerns about the impact on their career trajectory," she says. "Offering flexible work arrangements upon return from maternity leave, including part-time and/or work-from-home options, is one way employers can show they value working mothers."

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