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Why Do Americans Get Short-Changed On Maternity Leave?

It's called a blessed event. But for vast numbers of women around the world, the birth of a baby is anything but a blessing at work. Faced with lost wages or the loss of a job, they discover that maternity is grounds for discrimination.

Nowhere in the industrialized world is this truer than in the United States. In a sobering survey of 152 countries, released this week by the United Nations, the US ranks as one of only six nations without a policy mandating paid maternity leave. The other countries include Australia, New Zealand, Nepal, Papua New Guinea, Lesotho, and Swaziland.

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The study, "Maternity Protection at Work," was conducted by the International Labor Organization in Geneva, a UN agency. It finds that new mothers in the Czech Republic receive the most paid leave by law - 28 weeks. In Hungary, they get 24 weeks; in Italy, five months; and in Canada, 17 weeks. Scandinavian countries give extensive paid leave that may be taken by either parent. In nearly half the countries, payment comes from the social welfare system. In 41 countries, employers pay. Other nations combine both systems.

In the US, the still-controversial 1993 Family and Medical Leave Act provides 12 weeks of unpaid leave. Although it covers both men and women, it excludes workers in companies with fewer than 50 employees.

But here, as elsewhere, policy is one thing and practice is another. Companies can grudgingly comply with the law but still create a climate hostile to pregnant women and young mothers.

And then there are those missing paychecks. Despite legal protection, many American women return to work without taking 12 weeks. For most, the reason is economic: The family can't manage without the mother's salary.

Even women in managerial positions, who can often afford to stay out longer, are returning early. Although no studies have tracked the actual length of their leaves, anecdotal evidence runs strong. Talk to new mothers in a variety of fields and their concerns are the same: They worry that they'll be seen as less committed than other employees. They're not sure it's acceptable to be out longer. And they fear they'll miss promotion opportunities.

Just how far the US lags behind other countries becomes apparent in another area as well. "It's remarkable that in more than 80 countries, they have nursing breaks," says F. J. Dy-Hammar, chief author of the study. "It's specified in the law, and it's considered working time. In some countries, employers are even required to provide a room where they can nurse."

Many American business leaders, particularly in small firms, chafe at the idea of government mandates for maternity benefits. They argue that individual policies offer the best solution.

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Ideally, yes. But either by law or corporate policy, pregnant women and new mothers everywhere need guarantees that they won't lose their job. Increasingly, their salaries are essential for family survival. Women provide the main source of income in nearly a third of all households around the world. In the US, 55 percent of working women supply half or more of their family's income. In Europe, the figure rises to nearly 60 percent.

Around the world, Ms. Dy-Hammar also sees a need to broaden maternity coverage to include agricultural workers, temporary employees, and domestic workers. "These are usually what you call the most vulnerable sectors," she says. "To be pregnant, poor, and powerless - you can't be in any worse situation."

Whatever a woman's job, wherever she lives, being vulnerable to dismissal because of childbearing is an intolerable form of discrimination. Yet only 29 countries, most of them in Africa and Asia, absolutely prohibit dismissal during maternity leave.

Employers, Dy-Hammar emphasizes, "must realize that it's worthwhile investing in women workers." Only when more of them do will families around the world be able to say, "You've come a long way, Mama."

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