Labor Pains

Improving Employment and Economic Security for Pregnant Women and New Mothers

Policymakers must ensure economic security for pregnant women and new mothers, write Melissa Alpert and Alexandra Cawthorne in the first of a new series from CAP.

<meta http-equiv= Pregnant women have a stronger connection to the workforce than ever before, but public policy has done a very poor job of integrating them into the labor market. (iStockphoto)" data-srcset=" 610w, 610w, 610w, 500w, 250w" data-sizes="auto" />
Pregnant women have a stronger connection to the workforce than ever before, but public policy has done a very poor job of integrating them into the labor market. (iStockphoto)

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This report is the first installment in the Parenting with Dignity series.

Workplace policies affecting work and family balance are out of touch with the reality of modern family life in the United States. Worker benefits—including paid leave and health care—are modeled on a traditional two-parent household in which one parent works a single 9 to 5 job while the other manages household and childcare responsibilities. People who do not conform to this model are often left out in the cold. Part-time workers, for example, often have little or no access to benefits, including unemployment insurance when they lose their jobs.

Most households no longer conform to traditional notions of the American family. Single motherhood has dramatically risen in recent years, and unmarried women now account for nearly 40 percent of new births. Many two-parent families lack the resources to maintain a single, nonworking caregiver. More than 70 percent of children are raised in families that are headed by either a working single parent or two working parents. And with four out of every five jobs lost in this recession belonging to men, women are becoming the primary—or even the sole—breadwinner in an increasing number of American households.

The decision to have a child still complicates women’s interactions with the labor market, despite their significantly increased workforce participation and attachment. Three-quarters of women entering today’s workforce will become pregnant at least once while employed, and a significant portion of these women will be pregnant while applying for jobs. Those who become pregnant while working will generally not leave the workforce. Most of these women will continue working well into their sixth, or—more commonly—their ninth month of pregnancy. And more than 40 percent will return to work less than three months after giving birth.

Pregnant women have a stronger connection to the workforce than ever before, but public policy has done a very poor job of integrating them into the labor market. Pregnant women face even more barriers to full employment and to economic security than women who are not pregnant. Outdated and damaging gender stereotypes often lead to employer concerns about hiring pregnant women or women they think are likely to become pregnant in the near future. But in a major recession with record job losses, discriminatory hiring and firing practices have become harder to detect and address.

Denying pregnant women the opportunity to work may deprive many women and families of vital income, not to mention many of the benefits that often accompany secure employment. Bias against pregnant women sometimes also leads to discriminatory treatment against all women of reproductive age because they are viewed as having the potential to become pregnant and thus a possible burden on workforce productivity. Women need to be able to rely on the labor market and know that they will be treated fairly.

In order to follow through on the rhetoric about providing supports to pregnant women, policymakers must take action to support increased and consistent labor market participation among all women, especially pregnant workers. The policy actions we recommend include combating discrimination in the labor market; promoting flexible scheduling; improving family leave options; increasing breastfeeding accommodations in the workplace; establishing a system of quality, comprehensive childcare; and expanding access to Temporary Disability and Unemployment Insurance. Addressing these areas will ensure that pregnant women and new mothers have the economic and employment security they need to start or grow their families.

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Read other articles from the Parenting with Dignity series:

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Alexandra Cawthorne Gaines

Vice President, Poverty to Prosperity

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