Recession Cutting Maternity Leaves Short
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The two do have one thing in common -- niether woman was able to enjoy a traditional maternity leave after the recent births of their children. Murphy made the painful decision to go back to the office after just three weeks, and Fletcher kept working right up to and right after the birth of her youngest son, Lucas, six months ago.
When asked if she planned to take any time off after Lucas' birth, Fletcher replies: "I tried, but right before I went into labor with my 6-month-old, I signed a contract with a time-share company to do all their travel content. They placed a deposit on my services and I had to bring in more money to cover our expenses. My husband had just lost his job as a customer service representative at a credit company."
Fletcher's story is not unusual -- more and more women are deciding to truncate their maternity leaves due to money woes brought on by the recession. Greg Szymanski is a human resources manager for a real estate development company in Seattle, and he says the women he sees are "planning their return to work before they've even had their babies."
What is motivating this concern? Job security. Szymanski says that in his industry, times are especially tough, and everyone is worried. "Women are thinking that if they come back to work sooner, or take a shorter leave, their jobs will be safer," Szymanski says.
Jessica Hawthorne is the employment law counsel and a helpline consultant for the California Chamber of Commerce, and is the editor of the California Labor Law Digest, California Labor Law Administration, HR Handbook for California Employers, and she says new mothers have legal rights when it comes to maternity leave.
"There are a few levels of protection for women who are pregnant," says Hawthorne. "First, the law protects leave due to disabilities related to pregnancy if you work at an employer with five or more employees, and it also protects against harassment related to the pregnancy with employers with one or more employees. Also, if the employer has 50 or more employees and the employee is eligible, additional protected leave may be available in your state."
However, she adds, employers are not required to provide a paid maternity leave. And in this economy, that means more and more women are choosing not to take a leave of absence to be with their babies in those first few months.
Just ask Murphy: "My maternity leave chews through all of my vacation and sick days, and I'm about to run out and go on unpaid instead of paid leave, which also means I'll have to pay through the nose to keep our insurance benefits." That's why, she says, she made the difficult decision to stay home with new daughter Brenna for just three weeks.
While she knows this is the best decision for her family, Murphy still worries that her daughter will suffer: "She's so little, and she's not going to see very much of me anymore. Just in the mornings, for about two hours in the evenings, and at night feedings. She's going to see so much more of the daycare workers than she will of her parents, it breaks my heart."
For Fletcher, who is self-employed, there was no choice to make. She either works and gets paid, or she doesn't work, and her income comes to a halt. She manages, she says, because she has to, like so many other work-at-home-moms and self-employed parents.
"I nursed at my desk and typed one handed," she says. "With the other kids it can be hard, jumping up every few minutes to get a drink, change a diaper, or make a meal. You get creative -- there's been times I took a laptop in the laundry room and, um...the bathroom. You take any free moment you have, literally."
When I had my first child in 2004, the economy was in fine shape, and I had a cushy corporate gig with fantastic benefits and a generous, paid maternity leave. Fast-forward to 2008: My son was born while my husband pursues a doctorate full-time and I write for money in between diaper changes and flipping grilled cheese sandwiches. My "maternity leave" was a forced one, thanks to a c-section that kept me off my feet for four weeks.
Did the recession influence my decision to go back to work when my baby was just four weeks old and my incision was barely healed? Yes, it did. I would have preferred a six- to eight-week stretch within which to enjoy my newborn. But it wasn't in the cards for me, and it isn't in the cards for a lot of moms right now.
Did you take or are you considering a short maternity leave because of the recession?