WASHINGTON -- After decades of worker gains in paid-leave benefits, employers are becoming more selective about granting maternity leave in an economic downturn.
A Census Bureau analysis released Thursday shows that the share of women given time off for pregnancy, birth and child care has leveled off, with about half of working first-time mothers passing up paychecks to care for their newborns.
Lower-educated mothers are nearly four times more likely than college graduates to be denied paid maternity benefits. That's the widest gap over the past 50 years.
Women with no more than a high-school diploma saw drop-offs in paid-leave benefits from the early 2000s to the period covering 2006 to 2008, which includes the first year of the recession.
"Access to paid leave is limited, and it's also sharply regressive," said Lynda Laughlin, a family demographer at the Census Bureau who put together the report. "For working families where the norm now is for both mom and dad to work, not having some kind of paycheck coming in while they take time to take care of a child can be a real financial burden."
The analysis highlights the patchwork of work-family arrangements in the U.S., which lacks a federal policy on paid parental leave, unlike most other countries. There's a longer-term trend of widening U.S. income inequality caused by slowing wage growth at the middle- and lower-income levels.
Women with higher birth rates in the U.S. are on average younger, less educated and typically Hispanic, and they are more likely to toil in lower-wage positions.
If first-time mothers don't receive paid-leave benefits, they often return to their jobs quickly after giving birth, or sacrifice a steady paycheck by taking unpaid leave or quitting to spend more time with their newborns.
"This isn't good news for women at the bottom, and the irony is that the people with the most children are now the least likely to have the supports they need," said Kathleen Gerson, a professor of sociology at New York University and author of "The Unfinished Revolution: Coming of Age in a New Era of Gender, Work, and Family."
She noted that companies typically offer paid maternity leave after weighing the costs of finding and training a new employee against a short leave of absence. "The question is whether we can politically, as well as privately, create a wider blanket of support for these families."
About 50.8 percent of first-time mothers said they used some kind of paid leave, which includes maternity, sick and vacation time, from 2006 to 2008, the most recent years for which figures are available, according to the census report. That is unchanged from 2001 to 2005, but compares with 37.3 percent in the 1981-1985 period, when federal laws barring pregnancy discrimination in employment were starting to take fuller effect.
About 66 percent of women with a bachelor's degree or higher were able to use paid leave, compared with 61 percent earlier in the past decade. In contrast, 18 percent of women who had less than a high school education received the paid-leave benefits during 2006-2008, down from 26 percent.
The nearly 4-1 gap between college graduates and high-school dropouts is the widest it's been over the half-century that the Census Bureau has tracked such data. The disparity was essentially the same in 1991-1995.
High school graduates were less likely than earlier in the decade to use paid leave, 32 percent compared with 39 percent. Among women who had some college schooling but lacked a bachelor's degree, about 47 percent said they received paid time off for pregnancy, birth and child care, unchanged from the early 2000s.
By age and race, the shares of women using paid leave increased as they got older, from 24 percent of first-time mothers under age 22 to 61 percent of those 25 and older. That reflects in part more schooling and work experience that enabled older women to find jobs with better salary and benefits. Hispanics as a whole were generally less likely than other groups to receive paid leave, at 46.6 percent.
In the recession, most jobs lost were in middle-wage occupations such as machinists, managers and teachers, while jobs added in the slow recovery have been mostly lower-wage positions, according to the National Employment Law Project. The reduction in middle-wage jobs has contributed to an increasing gap between higher-skilled employees who receive better benefits and lesser-educated workers who do not.
The federal Family and Medical Leave Act, passed in 1993, enables workers with new children or seriously ill family members to take up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave. But it excludes companies with fewer than 50 employees.
Past efforts in Congress to enact a paid family leave law have been unsuccessful, lumping the U.S. with Swaziland, Papua New Guinea and a few others that do not require paid benefits on a national level. Some U.S. states, including New Jersey and California, offer paid-leave programs.
Other census findings:
_Women are more likely than before to work while pregnant. About 66 percent of first-time mothers between 2006 and 2008 worked during their pregnancy, compared with 44 percent in the early 1960s.
_First-time mothers are working later into their pregnancies than before. About 88 percent worked into the last trimester, while 65 percent worked into the last month of pregnancy.
_Eight out of 10 mothers who worked during their pregnancies returned to work for the same employer within a year of the birth. About 7 out of 10 of these women returned to a job at the same pay, skill level and hours worked per week.