Why does Unpaid Maternity Leave Still Exist in the United States?

Imagine being a parent in one of the world’s most advanced economies, and still having to choose between job security, your relationship with your newborn child and their health, keeping food on the table, and your own mental and physical health.

For Amber Scorah, along with countless numbers of parents across the United States, this was reality — a reality that unfortunately resulted in the death of her newborn at a daycare center after Amber’s guaranteed maternity leave came to a premature end.

In America, an employee can take up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave for familial reasons, under the 1993 Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), so long they meet a list of requirements. The workplace cannot discriminate, and jobs are protected … right? Wrong.

Out of the 50 states today, only four offer paid maternity leave — California, New Jersey, New York and Rhode Island. United States labor laws surrounding parental leave need to be improved in order to reduce the instances of infant mortality, as an equity measure to keep more women in the workforce, and to ensure the overall mental and physical health of mothers across the country. For these reasons, state legislators and congressional lawmakers need to improve parental leave laws by providing financial support in paid leaves, as well as an extension beyond 12 weeks.

Extended familial leave greatly reduces the instances of infant mortality. From the Center for Disease Control themselves, injury and lack of proper care fall into the top five reasons for infant deaths in America. Oftentimes, these situations are exacerbated when the mother or father is not present, and the child is in the care of another person. Child care is expensive, and the standards that most parents can afford are subpar at best. For working parents, caretakers are often a stranger at a crowded daycare center, an underpaid private caretaker, or even a family member that half-agreed to take on the gig last minute.

Improved maternity leave laws will greatly help women to stay active in the workforce, and ensure equity in the workplace. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that women make up about 47 percent of the workforce, a fluctuating number as a result of faulty regulations such as this. If we want to support women in the workforce, we cannot indirectly discriminate against women that are experiencing pregnancy and motherhood. Although the current regulations allow unpaid leave, most women are still grappling with job security and keeping their family fed. Women of lower socioeconomic class feel this impact on a greater level — with less financial provisions and support, it is almost impossible to make ends meet while maintaining motherhood.
Lastly, improved parental leave laws will ensure that their overall maternal health is physically and mentally improved, and as a consequence, familial health will also be improved. Doctors advise six to eight weeks for a mother to get back on her feet and fully recover from a pregnancy. Often, it takes even longer (for example, Caesarian sections have a longer recovery period). By the time a mother is ‘recovered,’ she only has about four to six weeks to focus fully on taking care of her child. The stress and mental tethers that this restricted time slot induces creates a decline in mental health as experienced by the mother, and can result in (or worsen) postpartum depression. In turn, the overall health in the household deteriorates.

There is no excuse not to change, as there are so many European countries with smoothly operating labor leave systems around the world that Americans can model one after. Newborns cannot lobby for themselves — mothers and fathers should no longer stay silent. Now is the time that legislators and congressional lawmakers take action to rectify the injustice that exists within the labor force. The current labor laws in the United States do not reflect a culture prioritizing the wellbeing of children and families, but instead one that prioritizes capitalism, a tumultuous work life, and financial gain.

We are a country that allows old Caucasian men sitting in Congress to create laws that dictate the working female’s body, and her place as a mother. We have failed countless families that have experienced a similar tragedy. The youth of America deserves better.

Minh Thu Le is a fourth-year public health policy major. She can be reached at lemt3@uci.edu.