In workplace, a shift toward leave for mothers

Over the past four decades, American women have leaped into the paid labor force and struck a balance between work and family.

But American government has yet to catch up. It's still struggling to adjust to the new gender realities of the work place. One of its biggest conundrums: Should government offer paid maternity leave to female employees?

Government payments could encourage more women workers to take time out from work to have children who otherwise couldn't afford to. States, in particular, have been eager to experiment. But recession, and the economic aftershocks of September's terrorist attacks, may have sapped some of the legislative momentum.

The future of paid family leave "is a tough call," says Elizabeth Owens of the Society for Human Resource Management, an Alexandria, Va., trade association that opposes government-mandated paid leave. "Employers are stepping in and providing more benefits for their employees: child care, dry cleaning. On the other hand, during hard economic times ... employers may not be able to afford" paid family leave.

Pregnant women's relationship to work has proved perhaps the most dramatic change of the past four decades. According to a Census Bureau report released today, working women who got pregnant in the early 1960s didn't have many options. Less than 1 in 6 received paid leave. Three out of 5 simply quit their jobs. That's a far cry from today. By the latter half of the 1980s, more than 4 in 10 received some form of paid leave. One in 4 quit their jobs.

"Women today are making a longer-term commitment to the labor force than women in the 1960s," the census report concludes. More recently, however, an increasing number of pregnant women are shifting from full-time to part-time work arrangements.

Just as important, the kind of woman working long into a pregnancy has changed. In the early 1960s, women who worked in their last trimester tended not to have a college degree, according to the census. By the late 1970s, the pattern had shifted. Well-educated women worked longer through their pregnancy than less-educated ones.

Today, the most educated women not only tend to work longer, they're also far more likely to receive paid family leave. In the early 1960s, women with at least a bachelor's degree actually were less likely to get paid leave than women who hadn't graduated from high school. But by the early 1990s, nearly two-thirds of the college-degree group was receiving paid leave, compared with only 18 percent of those without high-school diplomas.

Many factors have pushed women into the workforce during the past four decades: increased educational opportunities, the women's movement, legislation such as the Pregnancy Discrimination Act and the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), and economic pressures from the stagnating income of one-wage-earner families. Women today are also delaying giving birth, the census report points out, which gives them more time to complete school and accumulate work experience. These, in turn, make them more valuable to employers.

Since the federal government passed the FMLA in 1993, employers with 50 or more workers are required to offer up to 12 weeks of leave to workers for various health reasons, as well as the birth or adoption of a child. But according to the US Department of Labor, nearly 4 in 5 workers who said they needed family leave last year couldn't afford to take it under the FMLA. That's because the act mandates only unpaid leave.

Now, several states are pushing to offer paid leave. Last year, 26 states instroduced legislation for family leave, more than double the number the year before. So far, no state has implemented a full paid family-leave program, although Minnesota this year expanded its At-Home Infant Care Program, which pays low-income parents who stay home with infants under one year old.

Many US companies already provide such benefits. A Department of Labor survey found that one-third of employers provided full pay to new mothers, although it wasn't clear whether the money came from a specific family-leave program, temporary disability compensation, or from vacation and sick days. According to a 1998 survey by the Families and Work Institute, half of new mothers got some replacement pay.

The new census data suggests that paid programs might help employers hold onto workers. In the early 1990s, more than 6 in 10 women who received such a benefit and returned to work within a year came back to their old employer. Of those who received unpaid leave, about 4 in 10 returned to the same workplace.

"We're in favor of voluntary paid leave," says Deanna Gelak, executive director of the FMLA Technical Corrections Coalition, which represents 300 business groups.

But proponents of government-mandated leave point out that many employees, particularly poorer ones, struggle to care for their children because they can't afford to miss a paycheck. And with a voluntary system, not everyone is covered, they add.

The biggest controversy lies in who will pay. Several states are considering paying for such programs themselves through unemployment insurance programs, although the recession threatens to soak up funds. "The momentum's still there, but we have to be realistic," says Jodi Grant of the National Partnership for Women and Families. "Clearly, the biggest problem we face in a recession is: How do we pay for paid leave?"

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