One Small Hope For The Future Of Maternity Leave In The U.S.

03/10/2015 04:11 pm ET | Updated Mar 17, 2015
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The U.S. is woefully behind the rest of the industrialized world on maternity leave policies, and the country’s top politicians can’t seem to do much about it.

Yet progress could be on the way from a pretty unlikely source: The world’s biggest corporations.

Vodafone announced late last week that it would offer a minimum of 16 weeks of paid leave to new mothers in all 30 countries in which the telecommunications giant operates. Even more groundbreaking: The company will let returning mothers work 30-hour weeks and still get full-time pay and benefits for the first six months they’re back at work.

This benefit is particularly generous in the United States. It's also a sign that Europe's more progressive family leave policies are making their way across the pond, offering hope that we’re slowly raising the bar on worker benefits. The U.S. is the only industrialized country in the world that doesn’t require businesses to give new mothers paid time off, though most big companies do offer some paid leave.

Like most big multinationals, Vodafone tailors its leave policies to local law. That means in Europe, where paid leave is the norm, the company is already offering very generous leave benefits for mothers. On its home turf in the U.K., Vodafone workers get six months off at full pay -- local laws provide for 280 days of maternity leave, with the first six weeks at 90 percent of pay. (See the chart below.) The company's new 16-week policy won’t change that, but will benefit more than 1,000 Vodafone workers in places -- the U.S., Africa, India and the Middle East -- that offer very little or no paid leave, the company said in a statement.

Vodafone employs about 93,000 people, more than 500 of whom work in the U.S.

Corporations with workers in different parts of the world can’t offer generous leave policies in one place and terrible leave policies in the U.S., Kenneth Matos, senior director of research at the nonprofit Families and Work Institute, told HuffPost. “Logic eventually wins,” he said.

If enough workers start getting better leave benefits, eventually cultural expectations will shift and U.S. policy will improve, Matos said.

The inspiration for Vodafone's new policy came from Italy, where workers already enjoy a flexible return-to-work policy that lets them put in 30 hours a week and still receive full pay for up to the first year back.

The benefit, Vodafone believes, translates into fewer new mothers quitting the company. Globally, 65 percent of new mothers who quit Vodafone leave within the first year of returning, the company's human resources director, Sharon Doherty, told The Huffington Post. It's a sign that the transition back to work was too challenging, she said. But in Italy, fewer new mothers quit their jobs during the crucial first year.

Doherty had been looking across the company to see how it could increase its percentage of women. Women make up 35 percent of Vodafone workers, but only 21 percent of the senior leadership team.

A light bulb went off.

“The government-enforced policy [in Italy] was changing the dynamics. That got us to think about it a little differently,” said Doherty. She has a 2-year-old at home and had taken six months of paid leave from Vodafone in the U.K.

One thing Vodafone didn’t import from Italy, however: the country's very long maternity leave benefit. Italian Vodafone workers get 9 and 1/2 months of paid leave.

The company isn’t saying much about how it landed on 16 weeks as its minimum standard for leave, and paternity leave will still be country by country.

Indeed, there’s no consensus on how much maternity leave time is ideal, but there is plenty of research that offers some clear guidance. Numerous studies show that offering less than six weeks of leave harms both mothers and infants, said Sharon Lerner, a senior fellow at Demos and the author of The War On Moms. One well-regarded study, which looked at infant mortality rates and leave among European woman, suggested that 40 weeks of leave offers the most benefits to a child’s health.

Vodafone's Doherty sold the enhanced benefits package to senior leadership by making a strong business case for it -- better leave policy translates to fewer women leaving the company. That saves Vodafone the cost of recruiting and re-training new employees. Senior management, already tasked with bringing on more women, was sold.

Not all companies can make that case. Smaller employers, particularly ones with more female workers, wouldn’t financially benefit from these generous policies, said Eileen Appelbaum, a senior economist at the Center for Economic Policy Research, a progressive think tank.

Large companies can afford to offer paid leave because the cost of losing one worker can be shared by many employees -- and is lower than the cost of replacing a worker who doesn’t return after having a baby, she said. The calculus is very different for an employer with a higher percentage of female workers and a smaller workforce.

“It’s great that Vodafone is doing this, but this isn’t the way to go in general,” she said.

Instead, Appelbaum said, the government should step up. In an ideal scenario, all workers would share the costs of mandated family leave via a payroll tax. For example, in New Jersey, workers contribute one-tenth of 1 percent out of their weekly pay to fund paid leave, Appelbaum said. Other states could copy this type of strategy.

“Paid leave is cheap. It’s ridiculous that every state doesn’t have it," she said.

Clarification: Language has been changed to clarify that U.K. workers get 90 percent of their pay for the first six weeks of their maternity leave.

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