Tuesday, January 16, 2007

maternity leave - my experiences so far and a call to help

I never paid much attention to maternity leave policies before I was pregnant. I suspect that most women don't. But we should. And what's more, we should advocate to make them better.

Here's why:
The federal family and medical leave act (FMLA) guarantees eligible employees up to 12 weeks per year of unpaid leave after birth or adoption, to care for a sick family member or because of their own serious health condition. That doesn't sound too bad, until you pay attention to the fine print.

First, the leave is unpaid. If you are a low wage worker who is struggling to make it on her income as is (especially with all the additional medical and other expenses that a baby brings), how are you going to afford 3 months without a paycheck?

Second, who is an eligible employee? You have to meet all of the following requirements.
  1. Have worked at least 12 months for your employer.
  2. Have worked at least 1250 hours during the preceding 12 months (~25 hours per week).
  3. Be employed by an employer that has at least 50 employees within 75 miles.
Those criteria exclude an awful lot of people. What if you work for a small business? What if you have only been working 20 hours per week? What if you changed jobs just before becoming pregnant or after you found out you were pregnant? Well, according to the federal government, you should just plan on coming back to work right away, because you are not protected.

As for me, while we've scrimped and save and could do without a paycheck for a while, I am not an eligible employee so I don't qualify for any leave. While I've been at this university seemingly forever, I was on a fellowship for my PhD. So while I received a paycheck from the university, I wasn't technically an employee until September. Hence, the FMLA does me absolutely no good. And it probably doesn't do many grad students any good, since here (and most universities?) restrict TAs and RAs to 20 hours a week or less, nicely excluding them from a lot of benefits including FMLA protection.

What about other policies and laws?
  • This state has their own version of the FMLA with a more generous protection. You don't have to work for your employer for 12 months - only 6. But that still excludes me. In fact, other than finishing my Ph.D. earlier and abandoning my last fellowship paychecks, there's no way I could qualify for any FMLA.
  • Some employers offer their own unpaid or paid leave plans. But at least at this state university there are no provisions for family leave other than the state FMLA plan.
  • Some employers automatically grant short-term disability insurance or offer it for their employees to opt into. Short-term disability insurance will give you ~2 weeks of partially paid leave, since you are disabled after giving birth. However, in my case, I had to opt into the insurance and there was a waiting period before I would become eligible for benefits. I didn't get to enroll in benefits until November 1 (despite starting employment in September) and the waiting period was 4 months. By March 1st, I'll no longer be immediately post-partum and thus wouldn't be able to claim the disability. So I didn't even bother to enroll.
  • California is the only state with paid family leave. They do it through their state disability insurance and pay you ~55% of your normal pay for up to 6 weeks with no requirements about length of employment, etc.. Finally, there's some reason to move to California. Too bad I didn't.
So where does that leave me? My only option is to use all of my vacation and sick time that I have accrued since I started the post-doc. Fortunately, we get ~2 days vacation and 1 day sick per month. So in the ~4 months I've worked here, I've accumulated about 90 hours of leave. (Of course, almost half that hasn't been properly credited to me because of paycheck screwups). I'm reducing my FTE to 25 hours/week starting February 1, which will get me ~3.5 weeks. Of course, if the baby arrives early or on time rather than almost a week late, I'll burn through that leave time faster because I'll still be full-time. I could have reduced my FTE earlier, but then I wouldn't accumulate all my leave this month. I could reduce my FTE more, but if I cut it under 20 hours per week, I'll lose my (and the baby's) health insurance.

So officially, I'll be coming back to work less than a month after my baby is born. But I won't really. There is a saving grace to my situation. Remember how I worked on the post-doc stuff while I was still a grad student? Actually, I did quite a bit of work (>3 weeks), including several trips, while I was being paid off my fellowship. Basically, I unofficially banked that time. I told my boss that I am using that time as maternity leave time, giving me another 6 weeks off. And because I have the most understanding and fair boss I can imagine, he didn't even bat an eyelid.

Thanks to the work I did last spring and this summer, I'll be taking ~9 weeks off when Mini makes her big appearance. I think I agreed to be reachable if the need arises (our project has very demanding funders) while I am on leave. After that, I'll be coming back part time for at least a while. We really want to avoid having Mini in daycare while she's so little, so I think fish and I will try to juggle our work schedules for a couple of months more.

But, while the end is reasonably happy for me, my experiences have really opened my eyes to the inequities of our family leave system. How can anyone expect a woman who has just had a baby to go back to work in a few days? (See the horrifying story at the bottom of this post for someone who's situation didn't work out as well as mine will.)

So it was entirely appropriate last week when I got a call to action from Moms Rising. I'm going to use this blog post to form the basis for my comments. Please share your own experiences and concerns. Here's what Moms Rising has to say:
Now the FMLA, even though it's unpaid leave and only applies to those who work
for bigger companies, is at real risk of being scaled back when it actually
should be expanded. As you may know, the current law is actually quite weak in
comparison to the rest of the world. A Harvard study of 168 countries found that
only 4 don't offer some form of paid leave for new mothers--Papua New Guinea,
Swaziland, Lesotho, and the United States of America.

THE LOWDOWN: After years of corporate opposition, the U.S. Department of Labor is now seeking comments on the FMLA as it reviews the law. The FMLA could be scaled back if supportive citizen comments aren't plentiful. We need you to put
your tennis shoes on for a "volley" of typing in support of the FMLA.

TELL THE DEPARTMENT OF LABOR TO RETAIN & EXPAND THE FMLA: Submit your comments via e-mail to whdcomments@dol.gov
*And, after you've sent in your comments to the Department of Labor, please also
post your comments and share any stories at http://www.momsrising.org/node/453.
...We need as many mothers--and those who have mothers--to let the Department of Labor know the FMLA is good policy for families and businesses. Share your support for the FMLA, and any personal experiences, with the Department of Labor. Tell them the FMLA is a true success story that should be retained and expanded, not scaled back. Instead of reviewing a program which is already working well, the
Department of Labor should be putting our energy into expanding the FMLA to
cover more workers, and into making paid family and medical leave available to all.

SOME POINTS TO TALK ABOUT: Want to support the FMLA, but not quite sure what to say? The National Partnership for Women & Families has terrific detailed
information available for you to check out at http://www.nationalpartnership.org/FMLA. And, we at MomsRising have some
talking points of our own to share:

- The FMLA is a good start, but we can do better. The ability for parents to
take leave without fear of loosing their job is important. That said, "Paid
leave significantly decreases infant mortality, while other leave has no
significant effect. This suggests that if leave is provided without adequate
payment and job protection, parental leave-taking behavior may not be very
responsive.... As a result, other leave does not have a significant effect on
improving infant health," notes an Economic Journal report. In other words, it's
paid family leave that makes the big difference.

- Instead of reviewing a program which is already working well, the Department
of Labor should be putting energy into expanding the FMLA to cover more workers (only 46.5% of private sector workers are currently covered under the law
because it only applies to those who work in companies with 50 or more
employees), and into making paid family and medical leave available to all.

*A special note about a common misconception regarding who pays for paid family
leave: Paid leave need not be a burden for business. In California, the only
state with paid family leave, the funding for paid leave comes from a small
employee paycheck deduction, not out of the pocket of businesses.

YOUR SUPPORT & COMMENTS ARE NEEDED: Please send in a note of support for the FMLA today to the Department of Labor at whdcomments@dol.gov (And then also cross-post your comment and any stories on the MomsRising blog at


*Excerpt from The Motherhood Manifesto, Chapter 2: Maternity & Paternity Leave
(Paid Family Leave). You can read all of this chapter online for free at:

The OB put Selena on a fetal monitor, found out she really was in labor, and
then tried unsuccessfully with several different medications to stop the early
labor. Selena's baby boy, Connor, was born six weeks early the next morning.
Their baby was rushed out of the room and up to the Neonatal Intensive Care
unit, Selena's husband rushed up with him, and Selena found herself alone in a
hospital bed realizing that she was going to go home well before her baby. She
had a tough decision to make.

After their son stabilized, Selena's husband James came back down to her room.
They had another difficult talk about finances and Selena's leave from work.
They couldn't afford for her to take more time off than the couple of weeks
originally planned, but both wanted Selena to have the most time possible to
bond with her son. With her son stable in the hospital, but not knowing how long
until he could come home, the choice was between Selena taking time off when he
was in the hospital or waiting to take time off when the baby was released from
the hospital and could come home. "There was no way we could afford for me to
take off more than we planned," recalls Selena.

They made a difficult decision: They decided it would be best if she waited to
take time off until the baby came home. So after Selena had the baby on
Thursday, she was released from the hospital Friday, and was back at her desk on
Monday morning. "It was the hardest two and a half weeks of my life," she says
recalling the ache of being away from her newborn son and the rigorous family
schedule at that time.

Selena shares a fairly common experience with new mothers across America—one of financial difficulties and time stretched too thin with the birth of a child.
This experience isn't as common in other nations. In fact, the United States is
the only industrialized country in the world that doesn't have paid leave other
than Australia (which does give a full year of guaranteed unpaid leave to all
women, compared with the only twelve weeks of unpaid leave given to those who
work for companies with more than fifty employees in the U.S.). A full 163
countries give women paid leave with the birth of a child. Fathers often get
paid leave in other countries as well—forty-five countries give fathers a right
to paid parental leave...


Lab Lemming said...

Most Australian mothers that I know of got 3 months paid/ 6 months half pay leave. Some even give 12 months quarter pay, which is great if you can get it.

Although I do no sombody that missed out on her pay by 8 days (not at the company long enough), got paid anyway, and gave it back. Voluntarily.

There's some frightfully honest mothers out there...

The whole PhD/postdoc change in status is a bit of a rip off, but I must ask:

Do either undergrads or grad students get any maternity benefits at your university?

sab said...

shocking, frightening, saddening.

I don't even know what the situation is here in Canada. I know there is guaranteed parental leave, but I don't know what the conditions are for qualifying or what the pay situation is like. I'm pretty sure as a graduate student on fellowship, the most I'd be eligible for is to take an unpaid leave of absence and delay payment of my fellowship for 6 months (so I wouldn't time out on it at least). Better hold off on the baby-making for now...

I'm glad your situation worked out, but that sounds pretty scary for other mothers. Especially where in academia it isn't uncommon to be moving around for a few years... it would be easy to end up not being eligible for anything.

Thanks for sending out a wake-up call.

ScienceWoman said...

Lab Lemming: No, there are no maternity benefits for grad students or undergrads at this university. Because the grad students are capped at a 0.49 FTE, they can pretty much never hope to accumulate the 1250 hours per year required for FMLA eligibility. Maybe if they had a full time appointment in the summer (when it is allowed), but that'd be pretty rare. I didn't mean to come off sounding like I somehow got things less good than grad students - quite the opposite. At least I get vacation and sick leave - because they are less than half time, they don't even get that. My friend (a grad student) had a baby in late November and her advisor only grudgingly allowed her to take the remaining 2 weeks of the quarter off. And he insists that 0.49 RA means full-time work, so right now she is working 20 hours per week for a 10 hour/week appointment - with a 7 week old! It sucks all around.

sab - The whole family leave thing is just one more way that the academic universe still tilts in favor of the men. It's ridiculous that we should have to make a choice between being grad students and being mothers in our prime reproductive and academically productive years. I refused to make that choice an either/or - stay tuned to see how it goes.

Sara said...

in Switzerland the deal is pretty sweet (and even sweeter in Geneva than some of the other cantons), as long as you are at the job for 3 months before giving birth (and they will cut you some slack if you go early) you get 80% paid (up to some limit so if you are a CEO you dont get it all but for normal people it is the full thing) for something like 4 months. The University extends the deal and tops up your pay to 100% and throws in an extra month. This is good for postdocs, gradstudents, and in the non academic areas as well.

The part from the state is paid for out of hte same pot that pays the guys while they are doing their military service (1 year plus yearly refresher courses until the age of 30).

I had a really interesting conversation with the (male) Swedish post doc in my lab, in Sweden you get a year paid, plus a second year paid for hte other parent. Now, I am all for maternity leave but in my head it has always been an argument letting women continue to have a career even though they decide to have children, it was sort of a necessary evil.

in his mind it is the most reasonable thing, of course you give mothers maternity leave, it is their responsibility to have children, which is when you get down to it, the most important thing one can do to continue our society, so of course society should do everything it can to facilitate that. I'm afraid I can't put it as elegantly as he did, but maybe I get the idea across.

skookumchick said...

Wowza... some post. I hope Mini cooperates with her arrival date, although it's great you have a supportive boss. I just started getting Moms Rising emails too (got the book for Christmas) although no kids in the future for us just yet...

Amelie said...

That does sound scary, and unfair. Good that your boss is so supportive and understanding.
Here in Spain 4 months of maternity leave are mandatory, as far as I understand it, and paid. However, the latter part is somewhat difficult for students because you're not really covered by the state's social security system. Now they changed something so that at least you're covered in the last 2 years of your PhD... They recently added the option for the father to take the 5th months off, don't know whether paid or unpaid, and how this applies for students. Early day-care is pretty usual here, though I think I'd prefer the juggling, too, when the baby is still so little.
In Germany they are just changing these laws, and want to move towards the Swedish system, such that the state pays 80% of your salary for 12 months of leave. However, that requires the father to take at least 2 months paternity leave -- don't know what they do about single mothers, etc. Neither whether fellowships count as income..

Jenny F. Scientist (aka JF) said...

Thanks for reminding everyone of this.

As with many grad students, the best we can hope for is either a few weeks off 'under the table' or a semester's medical/personal leave. Unpaid. With no health insurance.

"It's ridiculous that we should have to make a choice between being grad students and being mothers in our prime reproductive and academically productive years."- YES. I've never heard a male grad student say 'I don't know if I can have kids and still get tenure.' Not even once.

B said...

Thanks for the post. My female advisor always tells me that during post doc years would be the best for having kids. But if the the FMLA requires you to work a year before you qualify then that makes it more difficult. How do you find a paid post doc for a guaranteed 2 years and then time your birth for the second year? Scary thought.

Rebecca said...

I'm a postdoc and I just got back to work 1.5 months ago after having my baby. I could afford to take only eight weeks off for the baby; after taking all my sick leave and my accumulated vacation time, I went without a paycheck for four weeks. I can't imagine how a low wage-earner would do it... let's face it, they wouldn't be able to afford to take any time off.

In fact, our baby had to be rushed to the children's hospital in an ambulance when he was a week old. We spent several nightmarish days and nights there. (We have decent health insurance but it doesn't cover $750 ambulance rides.) And then due to complications he is formula-fed instead of breastfed as I had planned. As a result of all these unexpected expenses we are scraping the bottom of the financial barrel. And I am a very well-paid postdoc.

I don't know where I'm going with this except to say that FMLA is certainly insufficient at best, and completely useless at worst, when it comes to the birth of a child.

Best wishes on a well-timed and uneventful delivery! I breathed a sigh of relief when my one-year job anniversary passed and I was eligible for FMLA leave. My baby was born nearly three weeks later, the day after his due date. If I have any advice to pass on regarding the childbirth experience, it is to be flexible and go with the flow. Good luck!

Theresa said...

I have been reading your blog for a few weeks and really enjoy hearing about someone else's experiences as a postdoc. I am currently a postdoc and we only qualify for FMLA and only after 1 year of working. I agree that FMLA is definitely insufficient and certainly should be expanded. I can't imagine taking any unpaid time at this point.

However I had a baby while in grad school so I thought I would touch on that. My graduate university offered 6 weeks paid maternity leave for graduate students. The dean of the graduate school was instrumental in putting this program in place. The graduate school actually paid for half and the college of the woman taking leave paid for the other half. I haven't heard of any other schools doing that and I think it is a great program. I just wanted to mention that there is at least one school out there trying to make it better for graduate students. I have no idea about my grad school's leave policy for postdocs.

Best wishes for a safe and relatively pain free delivery! Looking forward to hearing all about Mini in the future.

Angry Lab Rat said...

An excellent post, from one lab rat to the other. It is reasons like this that prompted me to leave my doctoral position and enter the world of private and public biotech (and I was starving!).

My evil global biotech company has the policy that mothers can take short-term disability. Of course, they also have to use up all their leave time in the process. When I adopted my children, I got squat. Luckily I had lots of leave time saved up (I'm practically chained to my lab bench, after all!).

Check out my blog:

Anonymous said...

"It's ridiculous that we should have to make a choice between being grad students and being mothers in our prime reproductive and academically productive years."

No it's not. Firstly, those are not your most productive academic years, second, the acedemic world will not and should not work around your desire to have kids. I applaud you for pursuing higher education and wanting a family, but you do have to make choices in life, and unless you feel confident juggling kids and midterms, do not have children until after you complete your education.

I also must say I do not understand paid maternity leave. Why would someone get paid for time they are not working?

Anonymous said...


I'm just trying to decide if now is the right time to have kids. I've been in my Post doc position for 12 months. But I'm now in Canada. I did grad school in Australian and would have been paid my full wage for 6 months had i got preganant then (the same rules for everyone which was nice). Now I have to negotiate with my supervisor to take off unpaid leave and then struggle to get into the single on campus day care with 40 spots... I think I'm going to have to wait a while yet...

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