Marissa Mayer's transition from Google executive to CEO of Yahoo drew much publicity this summer, partly because she is pregnant and announced that she planned only a short, working maternity leave.
The blogosphere heated up, with reactions ranging from supportive to scornful, but now the discussion has gravitated to the question of company support for new parents.
While more employers are providing some form of paid time off for new parents, a sizable chunk of the population still doesn't have access to it.
Jenny Gressman, a teacher at St. Brendan School in Hilliard, does. If she didn't, she would have returned to work sooner.
"Especially for me and my family, I would've had to go back if it wasn't paid," she said, referring to the six-week leave she took after the birth of her daughter in March.
The United States is one of four countries with no national law guaranteeing paid leave for mothers. Liberia, Papua New Guinea and Swaziland are the others. There are federal laws governing unpaid leave, but they apply only to larger companies.
Many parents can't afford to take unpaid time off to care for children in their first few weeks or months of life, and 77.6 percent of workers eligible for unpaid leave under federal law in 2000 didn't take it, according to the most-recent figures from a Department of Labor survey.
The Institute for Women's Policy Research in Washington, D.C., says that workers in upper-level positions, those who earn the highest wages and those who work for larger companies are more likely to have paid leave than those in lower-level jobs, those who earn the lowest wages and those who work in smaller companies.
More than 500,000 people had access to paid leave in Ohio last year, according to estimates from the institute.
Nationally, about half of women said they had some kind of paid leave from 2006 to 2008 in a survey from the Census Bureau. Many women use a combination of paid-leave options, such as sick days or vacation, to cover their maternity leave.
That's what Gressman did, to extend her leave beyond the six weeks provided by her employer so that she could take the rest of the school year off.
Federal law guarantees unpaid leave for both parents, but it's up to companies to decide whether to extend paid leave or go beyond federal requirements.
The Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993 grants 12 weeks of unpaid leave to either parent after the birth of a child, but applies only to companies with 50 or more employees and to parents who have worked there for at least a year.
The law isn't enough, said Vicki Shabo, director of work and family programs with the National Partnership for Women and Families.
"Our policies are failing our workers," she said. "Job-protected leave by the (Family and Medical Leave Act) is very important ... but it's not enough. It was always considered a first step."
Maternity leave, under the Pregnancy Discrimination Act, is classified as short-term disability leave. For most employers, that means pregnant women must be granted the same amount of leave as other workers with a short-term disability.
Parental leave -- the extended period for both parents to care for a new child -- is a separate legal situation, said Heidi Hartmann, president of the Institute for Women's Policy Research. Maternity leave refers only to the time of recovery after giving birth.
Experts point to studies showing various health benefits of parental leave for children and their parents. Gressman said an extended period of time after having a child, even after maternity leave, is crucial, especially for new mothers.
"When I got to the six-week point, I was just figuring things out with my baby," she said. "I still needed more time ... and my body still needed more time to heal."
Advocates for expanding paid leave say it's also a good investment for businesses, which can retain workers instead of hiring and training new ones.
Not so, said Andrew Doehrel, president and CEO of the Ohio Chamber of Commerce, adding that he hasn't seen research to back up that assertion. Requiring paid leave at the state or federal level won't work because each workplace is different, he said.
"Employers want to do the right thing," he said, adding that more businesses now are looking at paid leave. "But if it's too rigid, it's not going to be good."
Some states, including California and New Jersey, have set up paid-leave systems for employees. Ohio doesn't expand on federal requirements for private-sector workers, but state workers have access to fully paid parental leave and partially paid maternity leave, according to a May report from the National Partnership for Women and Families.
In Ohio, companies of more than four employees but below the federal threshold of 50 employees are subject to state civil-rights laws, which call for a "reasonable" amount of leave. The 12-week standard set by the Family and Medical Leave Act is what the Ohio Civil Rights Commission considers reasonable.
Several companies based in Columbus and elsewhere in central Ohio are ranked among the nation's 100 best for new mothers by Working Mother, a New York-based publication.
Abbott Nutrition, American Electric Power and JPMorgan Chase are among those on the list, which takes into account average time of paid leave provided, groups for new mothers and the option for new mothers to go back to work with reduced hours.
At AEP, maternity leave is covered under the company's sick-pay program, which can cover six months but can be used only for the amount of time the mother needs to recover from giving birth, as determined by her doctor, said Pat Hemlepp, spokesman for AEP.
For parental leave, AEP is subject to the 12-week unpaid federal standard, but 40 consecutive hours of that time is paid by the company.
Hemlepp said AEP has made the Working Mother list for a few years.
"It's important for a company like AEP to offer benefits that are competitive with other companies in order to recruit and retain talented employees," he said in an email.
Resource, a Columbus-based digital-marketing firm with 400 employees, recently revised its policies to guarantee two weeks of fully paid leave for new parents, including those who adopt.
Leave for new mothers includes the two weeks plus other paid time such as vacation and short-term disability, based on birth method, said Jamie Barcelona, director of human resources for Resource.
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