Is the US Navy leading the way on maternity leave?

Recognizing the need to keep talented women in the armed services, the secretary of the Navy proposed an extension of paid maternity leave. 

Chief Mass Communication Specialist Peter D. Lawlor/FILE/AP
FILE PHOTO- In a Photo provided by the U.S. Navy, Adm. Michelle Howard, right, lends a hand to Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus as he and Wayne Cowles, Howard's husband, put four-star shoulder boards on Howard's service white uniform during her promotion ceremony at the Women in Military Service for America Memorial in Washington on July 1, 2014. Howard is the first woman to be promoted to the rank of admiral in the history of the Navy and will assume the duties and responsibilities as the 38th Vice Chief of Naval Operations from Adm. Mark Ferguson.

Navy Secretary Ray Mabus wants to make the Navy more inclusive to women.

In a speech to midshipmen and women Wednesday at the United States Naval Academy, Secretary Mabus introduced a number of proposals to improve the quality of life for women in the Navy. One of these proposals would extend the length of paid maternity leave offered to female sailors from the current policy of six weeks to 12 weeks, with the ultimate aim of extending the longer leave to all branches of the military.

More than 200,000 women serve on active duty in the United States armed forces, according to the Department of Defense. Much like those working in civilian jobs across the country, women who serve receive little paid time for maternity leave.

Among the other proposals by Secretary Mabus, extending maternity leave may prove to be the most difficult hurdle to overcome because it would require an act of Congress to do so, reports the Associated Press. If the military were to succeed in enacting a 12-week maternity leave, it would make the armed services among the most supportive institutions in the country for new mothers. 

Of course, maternity leave in the US is far shorter than that of the rest of the developed world. In America, the Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993 states that employers must give a new mother up to 12 weeks off – but not necessarily with pay – following the birth of a child. But the law applies only to businesses with fifty or more employees.

Since this minimum federal standard was enacted, 18 states, in addition to Washington, D.C. and Puerto Rico, have added additional workplace protections, such as lowering the threshold for the number of staffed employees, according to American Baby magazine.

Some of these added protections require companies to provide health care for employees who miss work because of a physical ailment, to extend the same protections to new mothers during the time they are unable to work near the end of their pregnancy and after childbirth. Some other states lay out what mothers are to be paid for the time they are out of work, which is sometimes funded by tapping into state unemployment coffers to do so, following a 2000 ruling from the Department of Labor. 

But these individual states' policies still come up short of what other protections are afforded to new mothers in the rest of the world. On the other end of the spectrum, notes the Huffington Post are Britain, which offers 280 days of maternity leave with 90 percent pay, and the Netherlands which awards 112 days at full pay.

According to a 1998 paper from the National Bureau of Economic Research that looked at infant and child mortality rates, the optimal maternity leave is about 40 weeks,  

The Christian Science Monitor reported on some of the extra protections states like California, New Jersey, and Rhode Island award to new mothers:

California, New Jersey, and Rhode Island currently extend unemployment disability compensation to individuals who take time off from work to care for a new child. In each of these states, new parents are entitled to four to six weeks of family leave.

This time off is funded by a small payroll tax; businesses don’t pay anything. The costs for employees add up to between a few pennies to a few dollars a month, reported Annie Finnigan for Working Mother Magazine.

Research in California and New Jersey has shown that the ability to take time off after birth has resulted in a substantial boost to mothers' long-term employment while having little to no negative effect on companies' bottom lines. [...]

About 90 percent of the companies affected by California’s law, which went into effect in 2004, said that paid family leave either had no impact or had a positive impact on productivity, performance, turnover, and morale, according to a 2011 study by the Center for Economic and Policy Research.

About 60 percent of surveyed employers said they saved money because employees used the family leave instead of sick leave, vacation time, or disability benefits. Moreover, some researchers argue that short-term paid family leave saves companies money because mothers who take time off after childbirth are more likely to come back to work, cutting the costs of replacing an employee.

When the US military is compared to other modern militaries, America's maternity leave is still behind that of its allies. For example, the British military awards 26 weeks of maternity leave, according to Navy Cyberspace, a website that monitors countries' maritime defense policies. If doubled, the 12-week maternity leave period would put the United States armed forces nearly on par with that of the Israeli Defense Force (IDF). The IDF awards 14 weeks of maternity leave for a complication-less birth, according to the Library of Congress.  

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