The Struggle For Paid Maternity Leave and How Uber Drove One Pregnant Woman Into Debt
It’s no secret that paid maternity leave in the United States is much like a mythical unicorn: It sounds wonderful in theory and not completely unrealistic but nonetheless most of us new moms end up bucking our way back to our 9-5’s not too long after our babies start to genuinely smile at us as we head out the door. Although during his campaign Donald Trump pitched the idea for paid parental leave through the current unemployment program, the U.S. remains one of the only industrialized nations that doesn’t guarantee paid maternity leave. The Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA) of 1993 directs the current federal maternity leave of our country stating that employers must provide workers with 12 weeks of unpaid medical leave annually for mothers of newborn or newly adopted children. California, New Jersey, Massachusetts and Rhode Island are the only states that have publicly funded paid maternity leave with California offering new mothers up to six weeks, at 55% of their salary.
After telling my supervisor at a small non-profit that I was due in October of 2014, I was told that I could either choose between the raise they had planned for me when I returned or for them to pay me throughout my maternity. Luckily I had enough money saved to carry me for at least six weeks and my fiancé at the time was still working so I chose the bump in my salary upon my return. I still don’t know how legal or ethical that offer was, but I did understand that I was working for a small non-profit and had some pretty nice health benefits and was still able to make a little side money from writing while my newborn napped. I also understood that for many new moms, taking time off from work to bring life into the world can sometimes break them financially and that’s entirely unfair. No woman should have to choose between settling into new motherhood and bonding with her child or making money.
But like many women, Maya Warren found herself in that very situation. After seeking care from the ER for pain she thought was being caused by a fibroid condition, she learned she was actually carrying a healthy pregnancy, despite being told in the past that becoming pregnant might be difficult. The Washington Post reports that although Warren held down two jobs long before the birth of her son, working as an Uber driver and a home health aide, she found herself having to return back to work no longer than two weeks after he was born in order to provide for him. She had worked the same job for five years and lived paycheck to paycheck. She found herself unable to save much money to hold her over for a few weeks of maternity and like an estimated quarter of working mothers in the United States, Warren returned to work less than two weeks after childbirth, whether she was ready or not.
32-year-old Warren earned $20,000 a year working as a home health aide for Maxim Home Healthcare Services, a staffing company in Washington. She brought home about $300 a week, but considered herself a single-parent stating that her child’s father lacked a steady income of his own. But as Warren found herself further along in her pregnancy, her shifts with the health home care agency started to become far and few, and Warren found herself working two to three shifts a week when she once worked at least five. With the basic expenses of gas, food and rent piling up fast, Warren knew that she needed to make some additional money.
Like many looking to make some easy extra cash, she turned to the ride-sharing service, Uber. Tapping into her resourceful mentality, she pawned her mother’s gold ring to come up with a $350 deposit to place on a rented Nissan Altima through a partnership the car-sharing service had with Enterprise rental agency. Uber would deduct $215 a week from her paycheck for the rental and if she didn’t make enough money to cover it, Enterprise would charge the card Warren had on file. After signing a contract, Warren was ready to earn about $15 an hour as independent contractor. She aimed to give at least 75 rides a week driving during the evening and caring for her home health aide patients by day.
But of course things didn’t go exactly according to plan. When Warren went into labor after the birth of her son in late November she found herself having to undergo an emergency C-section, which would require a longer recovery time of 12 weeks than a vaginal delivery. Her Uber earnings from October to late November totaled up to $1258, about $243 a week which barely covered the rental and gas. Six days after leaving the hospital with son Kortez Isaiah she found herself sitting at her mother’s kitchen table contemplating how she would support her newborn son. She had received a car seat from a charity, was breastfeeding and living with her mom but could barely afford diapers. She couldn’t return to her day job for six weeks, but she could drive. Warren hopped in to the driver’s seat and prayed that passengers wouldn’t ask her to lift bags and tried to avoid any bumps in the road and fought the burning pain from her C-section stitches.
Six weeks later she found herself in debt to Uber for $1400 for the rental, missing payments starting from her fourth week as a driver and a $600 damage charge after the car was side swiped on her mother’s street. During her six-month postpartum check-up Warren’s doctor told her to get more rest. Her mother’s ring was still in the pawn shop, her son was only six-months old and in addition to her Uber debt she still had about $5,000 in student loans, $500 from old hospital visits and $300 in overdue cellphone bills. Like many women, Warren skipped the bed rest and jumped back into the driver’s seat because the bills don’t care if you have a newborn or not.
Many might say that Warren made some bad decisions and should’ve chosen a more stable, supportive partner or a better job before becoming a mother, but with 52% of pregnancies in the United States, being unplanned, I’m willing to bet most women find themselves in a situation where taking 12 weeks to recover from giving birth and not making any money just isn’t a realistic option. And not all women are eager to seek government assistance and don’t necessarily mind returning to work after settling into motherhood. But a few weeks without pay can really break a family’s financial security and that’s not even accounting for the “hiccups” that may happen like emergency C-sections or having a child with medical issues that require a woman to be a full-time mom AND nurse. Warren’s story is just one of many that show us that this country needs to a better job at supporting parents. No one should have to choose between following doctor’s orders and providing for their family.
Toya Sharee is a Health Resource Specialist who has a passion for helping young women build their self-esteem and make well-informed choices about their sexual health. She also advocates for women’s reproductive rights and blogs about everything from beauty to love and relationships. Follow her on Twitter @TheTrueTSharee or visit her blog, Bullets and Blessings.