- Associated Press - Thursday, November 10, 2011

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.

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