I read somewhere recently that the United States holds the distinction of being one of only four countries which do not guarantee any paid maternity leave to their female workers. For the curious, the other three countries are Lesotho, Papua New Guinea and Swaziland.
All that the USA guarantees is 12 weeks of unpaid, job-protected leave under the FMLA (Family Medical Leave Act) which applies to women who put in 1250 hours of work in a year for a single employer; and only when that employer has more than 50 workers. This leaves two out of five women without any access to leave under the FMLA.
In a surprising move, the U.S. Navy has stepped up and announced that women in the Navy and Marines will be eligible for 18 weeks of maternity leave. This new policy takes effect immediately, and retroactively applies to service women who have given birth since January 1st, 2015. The 18 weeks is a combination of paid maternity leave and paid convalescent leave. A mother does not have to take all of her leave at once but must use it within one year of her child’s birth. The policy does not affect existing policies for paternity leave or adoption leave. Maternity leave and parental leave are governed separately, and expanding leave for adoptive parents and fathers require Congressional approval. The Navy estimates that 5,000 service women, including 500 officers, would be able to take advantage of this new program in 2015.
The U.S. navy made this change as part of an effort to increase the retention rate of talented service women. There is a strong need to become family-friendly as twice as many women as men leave the service in the early part of their career. The Navy expects to retain more women from the 200,000-strong contingent of women currently on active duty. The Air Force is now considering following suit.
Other changes have also been enacted to encourage women to join and remain in the military. Earlier this year, on-base child care center around the world extended their operating hours each day by two hours in the morning and two hours each evening. Women can take up to 3 years off from service and return to duty. There are also options to go to civilian graduate schools or work with top corporations. The avowed aim of all these proposals and changes is just this: these women should not be constrained to make an either-or choice between family and service. As the military plans to throw jobs in the Special Forces and combat jobs to women by January, these proposals come not a minute too early and can go a long way to ensure that more women will join their ranks – and stay there. It is to be seen whether the other branches of the military service will follow suit, or if this will be followed by a movement to offer paid maternity leave to government workers.
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