LAST NOVEMBER, when my daughter turned 2 weeks old, I returned to full-time work. Five days after her birth I was on email. Within a week I was taking work calls. I wasn’t a workaholic. I was a new mom without paid family leave.
Several years earlier, when I was single and singularly focused on my career, I’d been hired as a contractor for the United Methodist Church to direct a grassroots campaign on maternal health. I never stopped to consider what effect my employment status might have if I decided to have a child of my own. When my husband and I got pregnant, I faced the stark reality that there were no policies in place to protect or support me.
Sadly, my experience is commonplace. A recent report revealed that one in four U.S. women return to work within two weeks of giving birth. While the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) protects employees’ jobs for up to 12 weeks after the birth or adoption of a child, only about 60 percent of U.S. workers meet the eligibility requirements, including only 19 percent of new moms. And since the FMLA does not require employers to provide paid leave, those who are eligible and need time off do not always take it because they cannot afford the loss of income.
With no federal paid-family-leave program and only a handful of states with their own, churches and other employers that do provide paid parental leave are left to foot the bill for it. Oftentimes they offer this benefit exclusively to their highest earners. The United Methodist Church, for example, does have a national parental-leave policy of up to 12 paid weeks, but it is only available to pastors. Staff of the denomination’s agencies, such as the one I work for, are offered up to 18 days of paid leave, after which they must use accumulated vacation or sick days or take unpaid leave. But as a lay person and a contractor, I was not eligible for either policy.