- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 26, 2008

A record 49 percent of American working women are taking paid maternity leave when they have their first baby, a federal report says.

It is a significant increase from the 1980s, when 37 percent of working women used paid leave when they became mothers, said Tallese D. Johnson, author of the Census Bureau report “Maternity Leave and Employment: Patterns of First Time Mothers: 1961-2003,” released yesterday.

Beyond that, little has changed in the way the nation’s female work force handles the birth of a first child: Most women still work until a few weeks before they deliver, most return to work within the year, and most return to their same employer with the same hours and pay.

It used to be that pregnant women weren’t seen in the workplace. In the early 1970s, “the common expectation” was that women would leave work upon becoming pregnant, Ms. Johnson said. That changed in the late 1970s and 1980s with the passage of a tax credit for child care and prohibitions against discriminating against employees based on pregnancy or childbirth.

As a result, it became normal for women to work while pregnant — even through the third trimester — and return to work sooner, and these behaviors haven’t changed significantly in more than a decade, Ms. Johnson said.

“The one difference” seen between 1990 and the 2001-03 period “is that we see that more women are taking paid leave,” she said.

Paid leave includes sick days, vacation days and employer-provided maternity leave. About 9 percent of new mothers used disability leave from 2001 to 2003, but that wasn’t significantly different from the 1990s.

When it comes to paid maternity leave, the U.S. stands almost alone in the world: All but five of 173 countries guarantee some paid maternity leave for at least some of their female workers, according to a 2007 “Work, Family and Equity Index” from the Institute for Health and Social Policy at McGill University in Montreal.

Instead, the U.S. has the 1993 Family and Medical Leave Act, which guarantees up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave for childbearing, adoption or other family care to employees of midsize or larger companies.

Democratic political leaders have long called for paid leave. This month, Sen. Christopher J. Dodd, Connecticut Democrat and author of the 1993 act, introduced a bill to add eight weeks of paid leave to the law.

Such innovations are traditionally fought by corporate interests, which argue that they already pay more than $20 billion a year to accommodate workers on leave.

According to yesterday’s census report, between 2001 and 2003:

• Sixty-seven percent of first-time mothers worked during their pregnancies.

• Nearly 80 percent of these mothers worked until a few weeks — or a few days — before their deliveries.

• After birth, 42 percent of first-time mothers were back at work by three months, 55 percent by six months and 64 percent by the 12th month.

• Of women who worked before and after their pregnancies, 83 percent went back to their same employers. Seven in 10 of these women returned to the same hours and pay levels.

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