Life at Work

Too Often, Family Leave Leaves Much To Be Desired

By Amy Joyce
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, August 27, 2006

People talk about "maternity leave": a break from work after having or adopting a baby.

But does it really exist?

There is no nationwide policy that promises all parents time off after the birth of a child for care, recovery or bonding purposes. And there is no nationwide policy that provides paid leave for new parents. Therefore, many new parents must cobble together enough money and time to spend several weeks with newborns.

The Family and Medical Leave Act requires companies with 50 or more employees to provide 12 weeks of unpaid leave to those who have worked there for at least 12 months -- and the time can be used for the birth of a child or tending to a serious illness, your own or that of a close relative. Some states have more generous laws. But mostly, maternity or paternity leave is up to a company or an employee's negotiating skills.

Dineen Pashoukos Wasylik is an attorney and a mom for the second time. She appeared in The Post's pages this month after the Transportation Security Administration banned liquids on flights. Wasylik had to pump breast milk in an airport bathroom and then pack it on ice and check it on a recent business trip a couple of days after the alleged terror plot was uncovered in Britain.

But Wasylik is used to figuring out how to make work and family, well, work. She used to be an attorney in Washington, but after her first son (now 3) was born, she and her husband moved to Florida to be near his parents. They knew the work hours would be easier and the cost of living lower.

Wasylik switched to a smaller firm for about half the pay. A few months into her new job, she became pregnant. The baby was due just shy of her one-year anniversary.

That meant Wasylik would not be eligible for the federally mandated leave. But she figured it out: She took her entire two weeks of vacation after her second son was born at the end of 2005 and another two weeks at the beginning of 2006, and that brought her to one year of service. Then she took 12 weeks of unpaid leave.

The leave was "extraordinarily difficult," she said. She and her husband, who is also an attorney, had saved up for it. But with a mortgage, student loans and day care for her older child, she had just $20 in her checking account when she returned to work. Any The profit from selling their house in Arlington -- $20,000 -- was gone.

Even with the pay cut to move south, "I make a lot of money, still," she said. "I don't know how people who make less make it. We are barely making it. I'm still cutting coupons."

The United States lags behind most of the world in providing paid parental leave. Of 168 countries in a 2004 Harvard University study, 163 had some form of paid maternity leave. The United States, in other words, is on par with Lesotho, Papua New Guinea and Swaziland when it comes to maternity leave. Australia is the only other industrialized nation that does not offer paid leave for new mothers, but it does offer 12 months of unpaid leave, the study reported.

"These protections are so limited, it is just another indication of how out of sync our nation's workplace policies are with today's working women," said Debra Ness, president of the National Partnership for Women & Families. Founded as the Women's Legal Defense Fund, the nonprofit organization drafted the FMLA legislation, which became law in 1993.

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