August 24, 2015 Liz Borkowski, MPH 0Comment

Last week, an In These Times piece by Sharon Lerner presented an alarming statistics: Nearly one in four employed US mothers return to work within two weeks after giving birth. In “The Real War on Families: Why the U.S. Needs Paid Leave Now,” Lerner reports that an Abt Associates analysis of survey data for In These Times found that nearly 12% of women took off a week or less, while another 11% took off for between one and two weeks. Women with less education and lower incomes are especially likely to have to return to work soon after a new baby’s arrival. Lerner shares the stories of several women whose financial situations forced them back to work shortly after giving birth:

What’s it like to be back on the job in the first weeks after having a baby?

For Natasha Long, who was back three weeks after her third child, Jayden, was born in 2012, the worst part was missing out on bonding time with her son.

Long, who was 29 at the time, was determined to make sure Jayden got breast milk. But the factory where she worked, ACCO Office Supplies in Booneville, Mississippi, didn’t have a lactation room. So when she was on breaks, she had to run out to her truck. She sat in the cab, worried that someone might see her, and pumped, while tears rolled down her face and over the plastic suction cups attached to her breasts.

Long cried because she wanted to be holding her baby rather than sitting in the parking lot of a factory in her old Yukon Denali. But exhaustion clearly also played a role in her emotional state. Her job was simple—to place stickers with the company logo on the bottom right-hand corner of plastic binders and then box up the binders. But the shifts were long—from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m.—and she put in four or five a week. Because the factory was an hour’s drive from her home in Okalona, Mississippi, Long had only 10 hours left in the day to do everything else, including tend to her three children, spend time with Jayden’s father, and sleep. By the time she got back in the evening, her children, who were being looked after by her father during the day, were on their way to bed. To pump breast milk before leaving for work, she had to get up at 4 a.m.

Under the Affordable Care Act, employers are now required to provide breaks and a space other than a bathroom for nursing mothers to express breast milk, although employers with fewer than 50 employees can be exempted if providing such a space is a hardship. But in the US, no law requires that workers have access to paid time off during the first months following a child’s birth. This takes a toll on mothers of newborns, on the infants themselves, and on families as a whole.

Paid family leave is good for public health, as the American Public Health Association made clear in 2013 when it adopted a policy statement calling for all employees to be able to accrue and use paid sick, medical, and family leave. This is probably why every other industrialized nation in the world offers paid leave to parents of newborns.

California, New Jersey, and Rhode Island have all created payroll tax-funded social insurance systems to allow workers to receive a portion of their pay while on leave caring for a new child or a family member with a serious health condition. At the federal level, Senator Kirsten Gillibrand and Representative Rosa DeLauro have introduced the FAMILY Act (and re-introduced it in 2015), which would create a similar social insurance system to allow employees to receive up to 66% of their monthly wages for up to 12 weeks while caring for new babies or other family members.

It’s frustrating to see proposals like the FAMILY Act stalled while Congressional Republicans work to eliminate Title X funding for family planning services and other aspects of reproductive health. The message seems to be that the majority of the US Congress wants to make it harder for low-income women to control the timing of their pregnancies, even though most won’t be able to afford to take enough time off to bond with and care for their babies.

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