10 Maternity Leave Myths

maternity leave

This week, the Supreme Court heard the case of Peggy Young, who says she was forced into unpaid leave from her UPS job in 2006 — because she was pregnant. Young reportedly presented a note from her doctor saying that given her pregnancy, she could not lift packages exceeding 20 pounds. UPS told Young that since she could not perform those duties, she could not continue as a driver. As a consequence of her unpaid leave, pregnant Young lost her medical coverage. She then went back to work two months after giving birth.

With Young’s case, the Supreme Court is slated to revisit the Pregnancy Discrimination Act, which was passed in 1978 to protect against Young’s exact circumstances. The act maintains that a pregnant woman (or a woman who has just given birth) “shall be treated the same for all employment-related purposes, including receipt of benefits under fringe benefit programs, as other persons not so affected but similar in their ability or inability to work.”

But anyone who has been pregnant in a blue-collar job (or otherwise) knows that workplace culture, not the law, often determines how your pregnancy is treated in the office. Here are 10 maternity leave myths surrounding your “protected” rights in the workplace.

MYTH: You're Legally Entitled to Paid Leave in the U.S.

Nope. Presently in this country, we have only the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), which holds your job for 12 weeks unpaid.

MYTH: You're Legally Entitled to Unpaid Leave in the U.S.

No again. This piece of legislation is applicable only to women (and men) who have worked at a company for at least a year AND work at a company that employs at least 50 people full-time. Don’t have both those things? Sucks to be you.  

MYTH: Most Women in the U.S. Are Offered Paid Leave Anyway

Also not true. According to MomsRising.org, 51 percent of new mothers don’t have paid maternity leave. Most of those women get by through some combination of FMLA, disability leave, vacation days, and sick days. However, some ultimately quit or lose their jobs.

MYTH: You Can’t Be Fired While Pregnant

Not legally, but absolutely, you can be fired while pregnant. While the Pregnancy Discrimination Act (PDA) says it’s illegal to fire a pregnant woman, there are many loopholes couched in “performance” language. A study in Gender and Society found that employers often get away with firing pregnant women by saying their performance is suffering (perhaps because they are growing a human?).

Reginald Byron, one of the study's authors and an assistant professor of sociology at Southwestern University, commented, "This strategy of portraying pregnant workers as undependable and costly seems to legitimize their terminations to external audiences.”

MYTH: Most Women Want to Quit to Be Home With Their Baby

Lies. A new study of Harvard Business School alumni found that (high-earning) women still want high-achieving careers after they have babies. Female breadwinning is on the rise: Four in 10 households with a child under 18 have a mother who is the primary or sole breadwinner. Two-thirds of these women are single mothers. And before the recession in 2007, 20 percent of ladies polled said they would prefer to work full-time rather than part-time or opting out. (That number rose to 32 percent by 2012.)

Sadly, there's more. Read the next five myths. 

MYTH: Paid Maternity Leave Is Essentially a Vacation for the Mother

Actually, paid family leave has serious, and often essential, benefits for both mother and baby. Paid family leave reduces infant mortality by as much as 20 percent. To note: Despite being a developed nation, the U.S. ranks high — 37th of all countries — in infant mortality. Research indicates that women who return to work earlier than six weeks postpartum are three times less likely to breastfeed. An additional study found that extended paid leave increases the duration of breastfeeding.  

MYTH: Employers Must Offer a Place for Women to Pump Breastmilk

The Affordable Care Act, or “Obamacare,” requires employers to allow women to pump breast milk while they are at work, which includes providing a designated room for pumping that is not the bathroom. However, much like with FMLA, there are loopholes.

Businesses, even those with fewer than 50 employees, are required to stick to this law unless they can prove it’s a “hardship” for the company. In which case, they don’t.

Furthermore, women are not entitled to be paid for their pumping time (or the time it takes to retrieve/clean/store breast pumps). For women who are paid on an hourly basis, this represents a huge dent in earnings given that pumping generally takes about 30 to 40 minutes and many women need to pump every three hours or so. And that’s only if your breastfeeding circumstances (health, type of pump you own, etc.) are optimal.

MYTH: Women Can Get Time Off to Go to the Doctor

False. Time off for anything medical-related cuts into your FMLA (or vacation or sick days). If you’ve maxed out all those meager offerings, any time you take off for your health or the health of your baby is unpaid. This puts mothers with high-risk pregnancies between a rock, a hard place, and some bullshit. Given that women of “advanced maternal age” (having your first baby at 35 or older) are a fast-growing demographic, high-risk pregnancies or pregnancy complications are all the more likely.

MYTH: This Sucks — It Must Be Like This All Over the World

Actually, the U.S. is one of only four developed countries that doesn’t offer paid leave to new mothers. FOUR. The other countries are Papua New Guinea, Swaziland, and Lesotho. Most of the developed world respects their mothers and families a lot more.

MYTH: If You’re Offered a Job While Pregnant, You Are Stuck With Terrible Maternity Leave

Nonsense. You can negotiate anything.

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