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Women who receive paid maternity leaves are in minority, study finds

Despite significant career gains, most working women still have little or no income protection if they leave their jobs temporarily to have a child. The nation's policies on maternity benefits are arbitrary, unclear, and often inadequate, according to a new study in the February issue of Working Woman magazine.

The vast majority of employed pregnant women now work almost until childbirth , and most are back on the job before their child is one year old. Thus, maternity benefits are a growing concern for millions of American women.

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To find out how significant and widespread those benefits are, researchers from Columbia University surveyed by mail the maternity-leave policies of 250 companies. They analyzed available data sources and supplemented their research with in-depth interviews at 15 corporations. Their findings were disappointing and sometimes startling.

The magazine reports that only 40 percent of employed women in the US are entitled to a paid six-week disability leave at the time of childbirth. Many women depend upon sickness benefits of a week or two, plus vacation time - and still have less than a month of paid time off when they give birth. Many others do not have even that. In companies where disability insurance is provided, benefits for a normal pregnancy typically cover six to eight weeks. However, many of the women interviewed for the study complained that they were under company pressure to return to work sooner, before they believed they were ready.

In addition to - or instead of - a paid disability leave for childbirth, nearly three-quarters of the companies surveyed permit employees to take unpaid leaves of absence following childbirth without risking their jobs. The study found that most employers offering such leaves allow between two and three months, including the disability period, for a woman to return to work if she wants to keep her job.

One of the study's most startling findings was that America lags well behind many other countries on maternity benefits. Some 117 countries - including many less-developed ones - have laws that protect pregnant employees. These laws often allow a mother to leave work at the time of childbirth, guarantee that her job will be saved for her, and provide a cash benefit to replace all or most of her earnings. The minimum paid leave in European countries is 14 weeks; five months is common practice. The most generous country, Sweden, replaces 90 percent of salary (up to a maximum) for nine months, in a parent benefit that can be used by fathers or mothers, or shared between them.

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