Society and Hollywood tell me that I can have it all: a successful career, a beautiful, immaculate home, a manicured lawn, a perfectly happy family, yadda, yadda, yadda…But I have decided I don't want to "have it all" based on the nation's view of what that means. In my view, I do have it pretty good because I am in charge of my schedule: I get to have a career and spend lots of time with my Darling Boys. My home? Uh, well, it suffers the most. I try, but most days it gets the best of me, and frankly my home is never immaculate.
I work from home, late at night, on weekends, when the Darling Boys are at preschool or when they are with our part-time nanny. I don't bring home buckets of money; I'm always tired; I'm always scrambling to get things done, whether it's work, laundry, grocery shopping or cleaning, but I made the choice long ago that I wanted to be here at home with my kids the majority of the time. I wanted to know all their favorite things, answer their never ending questions, explain the wonders of the world, talk, sing, play and learn with them and see every milestone along the way.
That path is not right for everyone. Not everyone has the choice of a flexible schedule or the choice of whether to work outside the home or stay home. And those that do have a choice are free to choose what's right for their families. It's neither right nor wrong to work from home, work part-time, quit a job to stay home with your kids; or work full-time outside the home. Everyone is different. What works for one family, may not work for another. Regardless of what choice you make, it takes a lot of balancing, compromising, lack of sleep and help from others to make it work.
I did not have paid maternity leave. I am an independent contractor. I get paid when I do work and turn it in. I took about 1 month off with Darling 1, which worked out well with my schedule. With Darling 2, I took about 4 days off. I had work that needed to be done. I did not have a choice. Fortunately, DH's company has paid parental leave for the birth or adoption of a child. The leave is the same for males and females. It was quite helpful for DH to be home for almost a month with full pay, especially after Darling 2's birth.
Women are told they can have it all, but when it comes to paid (or unpaid) leave to tend to family matters, many employers don't deliver. Unfortunately, paid leave is rare in the United States. In some cases, even if it's available, the employee does not feel that it would be in his or her best interest to actually take the full leave. In other cases, the paid leave simple does not exist.
In the context of the rest of the world this is unheard of. Looking at a table of countries and parental leave, paid and unpaid, offered by each country, the United States is the only 1 listed with 0%, 0$ (Note: the only other country that does not offer any type of paid leave is Australia. Australia does provide for a year of unpaid leave and has now introduced legislation to provide for paid parental leave).The only leave "guaranteed" is that provided for by the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA), which provides for up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave and protects one's job while on such leave.
FMLA does not cover all employees, and guarantees no pay during the leave, that is up to each employer. FMLA includes all public agencies and private companies with 50 or more employees within 75 miles. The employee must have been employed by a covered employer for at least 12 months prior to taking the leave, and the employee must have been working at least 1250 hours in the last 12 months for the covered employer. It's not automatically given to an employee. The employee must request FMLA leave from the employer, complete the accompanying forms and turn them in to the human resources department. According to the Center for Economic and Policy Research in Washington, D.C., FMLA covers about 60 percent of the US workforce.
Other Countries' Paid Parental Leave
On the flip side, Afghanistan provides for 90 days at 100% pay for maternity leave; Vietnam pays 100% maternity leave for 4 to 6 months; and in Canada a combination of maternity and parental benefits can be received up to a combined maximum of 50 weeks. Some countries such as Slovakia, the Czech Republic and Austria provide mothers with paid leave up to 2 or 3 years. Shocking, I know.
Haven't we always been told, always believed we are more civilized, more progressive, more equal and just plain better than the rest of the world? Yet, what do the parental leave policies say about how much we, as citizens of the United States, value parenthood, our children, or work/life balance?
The Reality of Parental Leave
While length and status of parental leave have long been an issue, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court recently ruled that being on leave longer than eight weeks means your job is not guaranteed under state law when the employee returns. This clearly was a case where FMLA was not covering the employee who brought suit against her employer.
The Massachusetts state law provides for 8 weeks of unpaid leave with guaranteed job protection. The employee in this case was gone 11 weeks, believing this was approved by her employer due to a conversation she had with her supervisor who told the employee that if she gave birth by C-section she could have more than 8 weeks of leave. The employee did give birth by C-section and took the additional 3 weeks. When she returned to work, she found out she had been fired.
There are many cases similar to this one. But there are also many situations where a parent simply returns to work at the end of the period of paid leave, or as soon as possible if there is no paid leave. The reality of the situation is that most families can't afford for a parent to be on unpaid leave 2 or 3 weeks, much less 12 weeks, especially in this time of economic uncertainty.
Unfortunately, many employers also feel that they can't offer paid leave or even unpaid leave, if not required to do so by FMLA. In fact, the Boston Globe reports that a 2010 Society for Human Resource Management survey found 17 percent of employers offered paid maternity leave for employees, but 7 percent planned to reduce or eliminate the benefit due to economic concerns.
Few states have laws guaranteeing job protection or offering additional benefits outside of FMLA. A 2005 report grading the states based on the benefits provided to private sector employees and benefits provided to state employees gave 20 states failing grades, with only 1 state (CA) receiving an A- (the top score).
What the Employee Needs to Know
Maybe the current trend of offering less or no paid (or unpaid) leave will change in the United States, but right now the fact remains that for most employers it's not an option, whether by choice or due to economic constraints. The important thing to remember is that you, the employee, need to know what your employer does provide in the case of parental leave due to the birth or adoption of a child. The employee needs to be sure to be in contact with the employer's human resources department with enough time before planning to go on leave to check for FMLA coverage, complete necessary forms, formally request the leave, etc. It's essential that the employee knows what the leave policies in the employment manual dictate. Also, in light of the Massachusetts ruling, mentioned above, it's worth reminding the employee to make sure that any agreements as to parental leave, whether paid or unpaid, are in writing and signed by both the employer and employee.
What's the solution? Other countries provide their employees with more than adequate maternity leave with mostly paid options through various programs, funded by the employers and/or government. Should the U.S. be on par with countries like China, Ethiopia and Iraq, or even Germany or Norway? Dare we dream? How do the already strapped states and federal governments accomplish this? Were you happy with the amount of leave and compensation you received after the birth or adoption of your child? How much leave should a new mother/father get? Should it be mandatory to pay employees for such leave?
This topic of parental leave is vast, and the solutions and programs offered vary depending on the reason and duration of the leave. Consequently, I will post on leave provided to an employee to care for a sick child, spouse, or parent on another date. On Thursday, I will provide tips for balancing all the demands of work and family, resulting in a more serene employee/parent/spouse. Over and out…
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