Even when maternity leave is an option, a lot of women grapple with a number of questions surrounding whether or not they can take it. Often, they can't afford to take the time off if their employers don't compensate them or the government doesn't help stabilize their pay. And some worry about whether or not they'll still have a job upon their return. But new research suggests that unions may be able to help new moms take the leave to which they're entitled.
The United States is the only developed that does not have national standards regarding paid family or sick leave. This means that the only federal law that protects a new mothers' right to take time off after childbirth (12 weeks) is the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA). The FMLA guarantees that new moms will still have their jobs when they return from maternity leave without penalty in pay or position, even though that's not always the case. It does not require that they are paid while they're away. A workplace may or may not have an official maternity leave policy, and even if it does, the leave, unfortunately, may not be paid. If it is, it may not be fully paid — some companies will offer partially paid leave policies or programs like short-term disability policies.
Moreover, the FMLA does not apply to everyone. It only protects new mothers if they work at a company with more than 50 employees and if they've worked there for a minimum of 1,250 hours during the prior year.
Still, a lot of women have to rely on the FMLA. A study by the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) found that 60 percent of employers give 12 weeks of maternity leave, and 33 percent give more than 12 weeks, including both paid and unpaid leave. Only 58 percent of companies pay a salary or wage during some or all of maternity leave, according to the report.
Little to no pay and risk of job loss, of course, makes it difficult for new mothers to take time off.
New research, however, suggests that union-represented women in the United States are 17 percent more likely to take maternity leave than women who are not represented by unions. The team of researchers led by the Vanderbilt University professor Tae-Youn Park, assistant professor of management and Brownlee O. Curry Jr. Dean’s Faculty Fellow at the Owen Graduate School of Management, looked at the role unions play in influencing whether women take advantage of the benefits offered to them.
They drew from a nationally representative sample of 4,108 workers and found that, even if a maternity leave benefit is available, women need to be aware of its existence, be able to afford to take the leave and be assured that they won't risk loss in hours, pay or promotion opportunities for doing so. In short, availability, awareness, affordability and assurance are key.
“Simply enacting or offering a paid parental leave plan does not automatically mean that workers will take a leave. So we need to better understand the factors that prevent workers from taking a leave, and ways to reduce these barriers,” says Park. “One of the challenges with research into these issues, however, is that the decision to take leave is very complex.”
Unions help moms to take maternity leave because studies show that women involved develop communication and self-advocacy skills. That's largely why, according to the Department of Labor, union-represented workers are more likely to have access to retirement plans, life and disability insurance, child-care subsidies and health-care benefits, as well.
“Labor unions are popularly associated with higher wages and restrictive work rules, but in reality, unions can have many other effects in the workplace,” Park said. Thanks to collective bargaining and information sharing on existing leave policies via workshops, newsletters or other channels, for examples, unions help to enhance workers’ rights to fair wages and their awareness of policies.
“I hope this theorizing and these results spur others to continue to deepen our understanding of the barriers that prevent new parents from taking a paid leave, and help identify ways to reduce these barriers,” Park said.
AnnaMarie Houlis is a feminist, a freelance journalist and an adventure aficionado with an affinity for impulsive solo travel. She spends her days writing about women’s empowerment from around the world. You can follow her work on her blog, HerReport.org, and follow her journeys on Instagram @her_report,