When it comes to taking time off for a new baby, the best-laid plans often go awry. Sonya Underwood had worked at a hospital in Atlanta, Georgia, for eleven years before getting pregnant with her third son. As a single mother, she prepared to cover the income she would lose during her unpaid leave, hoarding paid time off and taking out disability insurance. And then real life intervened. Doctors told Underwood that she had an incompetent cervix and put her on bed rest three weeks ahead of schedule. Then her son arrived at twenty-six weeks. The twelve weeks of leave she is guaranteed by the Family and Medical Leave Act soon ran out, as did the insurance, even though her son remained in the NICU. “I didn’t have any money left,” Underwood said. So she went back to work and visited him at the hospital every day.
But once her son came home, Underwood’s situation quickly became untenable. Daycare centers wouldn’t take a medically fragile baby. Her human resources department informed her that her only choice was more unpaid leave. “It didn’t help out my situation because I still had rent due, my car note due, utilities, everything else,” she said. After she exhausted that leave, she was let go from her job, lost her car and couldn’t qualify for unemployment insurance because of her role as her son’s caretaker. The only places left to turn were Temporary Assistance to Needy Families and a loan she already knew would be difficult to pay back. “I’m a victim of FMLA because it didn’t help my family,” she concluded.
Many new mothers in this country are like Underwood: working women who give birth without guaranteed time to recuperate and care for their babies. Those who take unpaid leave often resort to drastic measures, such as going deep into debt, to make ends meet. Only three federal laws have ever been passed that offer protections for workers with new children. The best known is the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), which requires that employers of a certain size allow new parents up to twelve weeks of unpaid leave. No federal law requires employers to provide paid leave to new parents, and eighteen states offer nothing beyond the FMLA. Unsurprisingly, the Census Bureau has found that over 40 percent of new mothers take unpaid leave.
But many workers aren’t even guaranteed that. Less than half of the country’s private-sector workers are covered by FMLA, which may explain why over a quarter of all workers—in situations similar to Underwood’s—either quit or are let go of their jobs when they need to take leave.
Of course, employers are free to be more generous with paid leave, but a recent report from the National Partnership for Women & Families found that many employers cut back over the past decade. Almost 30 percent of employers offered paid leave for new mothers in 1998; only 16 percent did in 2008.
For families who either get no pay or a fraction of their salaries for months at a time, the solution seems to be to make ends meet however they can. Debt appears to be a common way for new mothers to plug the hole left by lost income, even though it can lead to financial disaster later in life. A recent survey in the United Kingdom found that almost a third of mothers end up in debt due to maternity leave—and paid maternity leave is mandatory there for employers. While there aren’t comparable studies here in the United States, other related reports, combined with the individual stories of women who’ve gone into debt after having children, suggest that parents are taking on debt just to scrape by. A quarter of all “poverty spells”—falling into poverty for two months or more at a time—begin with the birth of a child. “Given that nearly half of parents have not a dime [in paid leave], of course there must be maternal debt,” says Ellen Bravo, director of Family Values @ Work.