Thursday, 1 July 2021

Employee maternity benefits

As a slight update to my post below, while I do not yet know what specifically happened in the US yesterday (nothing in news articles?), I have learned about a supreme court ruling from last year that allows employers with religious or moral objections to limit women's access to birth control through ACA ('Obamacare'). WTF? It still ties in with my opinion that birth control should not being under the... er... control... or responsibility of an employer and equally an employer should not have to right to tell your medical insurance what it can or cannot provide to its employees - especially where anything outside of health (like religious views and moral convictions) is concerned.

Dare I say that an employer with religious or moral objections that would limit a female employee's access to birth control is probably an employer that offers six weeks of unpaid maternity leave.


I got into a discussion on Facebook. I've resisted the temptation on so many topics for ages as these rarely go well. But, today, this post, shared on a page The Big Girl Pants Co. whose post-shares I often quite enjoy, shook my tree.

There are a bunch of issues in this 36 word post.

Birth control

The first that caught my attention was that this person expected her employer to pay for her birth control.

If the employer pays for an employee's birth control and the employee gets pregnant, does the employer then have the right to not be expected to pay the employee a maternity-leave salary and they would then not have to keep the employee's job open for when they are ready to return to work?

If an employer is involved in their employee's reproductive issues, they may as well jump into a bunch of others that directly affect the performance, productivity and attendance of their employees. 

Should they prescribe employee-specific diets to prevent employees from falling ill, putting on weight, and suffering from diet-related lifestyle diseases - any of which could compromise their effectiveness at work, decrease attendance and cost the employer in paid sick leave? 

An employer could make daily exercise compulsory (easy enough to track compliance using a variety of devices and apps) to improve the physical and mental wellbeing of their employees for better productivity and work-life balance. They could also dictate that employees do not smoke/vape at all, even outside of the office because of the long-term health implications that may affect an employee's ability to do their job. And alcohol! An employer could go for a no drinking policy - not after work, not weekends, nothing. How many cumulative work days have been missed for alcohol-related incidents from a bad hangover to a broken leg, concussion or a car accident?

Enough of that nonsense, back to birth control...

If an employer pays for birth control, it would appear that they expect the employees to take / use said birth control measures (applicable to both male and female employees). Could it be argued that the employer aims to prevent employees (specifically female) from getting pregnant, thus removing their reproductive freedom - like sterilising a person without their permission - and thereby infringing on their human rights?

  • Do I think that birth control should be free? YES.
  • Do I think that an employer should pay for it? NO.

Who then should pay for it if the individual does not want to or they don't have the means? Well, the government, of course. And medical aid schemes. That medical aids do not pay for birth control is a shame indeed.

The South African government does provide free birth control - from pills to injections and condoms. Access and convenience is a BIG issue with clinics far away from many communities. I watched this TED Talk below 10 years ago and it really made a big impact on me. Women should not need a doctor visit to get access to birth control. It should be as easy, convenient and accessible as going to your corner cafe for a loaf of bread. It doesn't take a seven-year degree to dispense birth control pills or an injection and to provide support and instruction. In the US, family planning clinics do provide free contraception too - you probably have to prove that you are within a certain income bracket (I don't know how this works there).

Of course, you can get birth control privately but you have to see a doctor first who will prescribe pills, injection, devices etc. Birth control costs add up, even for middle-income earners who can go to a doctor and access pharmacies. Some methods may be prohibitively expensive. Sure, contraception is cheaper than raising a child, but costly to take month after month.

Maternity leave

This poster wants six months of paid maternity leave plus full-time child care for when they return to work. Wouldn't we all?

I stirred up a hornet's nest when I suggested (playing Devil's advocate) alternatives to employer-paid maternity leave.

One option is to take out maternity-leave insurance if you aim to have children at some stage in the first 10-15 years of your working life. How long you contribute before getting pregnant may determine your payout but I would expect the aim of the insured is to get a full and equal-value salary for the selected duration of maternity leave. And then you just hope that your employer keeps your job open for when you return to work.

Insurance avenues do exist. Female contributors to the Unemployment Insurance Fund can claim maternity benefits from UIF but it won't come close to what mid to high-income earners bring in. There is also income protection insurance, which includes maternity cover. 

Another option is to 'save up' to have a baby. Every month money could be put aside to provide an equivalent-to-salary income for the duration of the desired maternity-leave period - whether six weeks, three-months, six-month or a year.

There are a few problems with both of these 'suggestions'.

To have insurance, you must be fairly affluent to afford it.

To be able to save up enough money over a few years to cover your salary for six months, you can't be living paycheck-to-paycheck, which is the situation for the vast majority. To add further fuel to this fire, if two adults are already living paycheck-to-paycheck, how will they be able to clothe, feed, educate and raise a child without getting into debt?

Is it right that access to maternity benefits is only for those wo have reasonable jobs, those who can afford insurance or those who have extra money each month that they can save? Should low-income and negligible-income people be denied the opportunity of starting a family because of their economic situation? Of course not. 

  • Do I agree that women should have maternity leave (and longer than six weeks!)? YES.
  • Do I wish for new mothers that their maternity leave is free of financial worries so that they can focus on their newborn? YES

Who then should pay people wanting to build a family?

Countries like Finland, Sweden, Denmark and the like that offer excellent maternity benefits have citizens that pay high taxes and they have a high base of contributors. The post commentators are primarily from the US and I don't see them queuing up to pay taxes similar to those of these locations. Countries like South Africa, have lower taxes and a minority of tax-paying citizens who support the majority. Social and child grants exist and they make an enormous difference in the lives of the recipients but these certainly are not enough. Child rearing is a costly enterprise.

Something else I wrote in response to this post created a stir:

As any self-employed person will tell you, that people even get paid maternity leave really is a privilege that has become an expected right.

That word. Privilege.

If you have an employer who offers paid maternity leave and keeps your job open, you are privileged. This not a given for the self-employed, contract workers, wage earners and the unemployed. 

  • Is maternity leave (for women and men) a human right? YES.
  • Is paid maternity leave a right? NO. I think it is an attractive job benefit and, as far as I can tell, employers are not legally obligated to offer paid leave.
  • Are people who receive paid maternity leave privileged? YES.
  • Should your job be available for you to return to within an agreed period of time? YES. 

I found this online:

"In the US, parents and family are federally protected under the 1993 Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) to go on maternity or family leave after the adoption or birth of a child. Under this law, legal parents are protected for up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave (per year)."

"In accordance with the South African labour law, moms are entitled to four months unpaid maternity leave. This means that you are entitled to take the full four months leave if required. In South Africa, the parental leave period has recently increased from three days to ten days."

The focus of the original post was a finger-pointing at employers (I take it the poster is employed) so I make no attempt to address the dire situation of low-income earners and the unemployed in terms of what the government does or doesn't provide - or should - in terms of medical, maternity and childcare support.

While employees have wants, needs and entitled expectations, they fail to consider the impact on their employer.

When an employee goes on maternity leave, the employer loses a valuable contributor. For the duration of the employee's maternity leave, they either have to do without her or hire a stand-in. In the case of the former, other employees take on an extra load for a few months. In the latter, the employer has to now cover two salaries. In a corporate setup, this can get gobbled up in the machinery but in a small business of two to 10 employees, it can be a considerable hit on the employer.

An employer that does not hire women of reproductive age would be considered discriminatory. A business with a staff of 3-5 may not be able to carry a maternity-leave salary plus a fill-in for six months or even three months. They may not be able to carry a 70% salary plus fill-in either. Would this business be within their rights to not employ women of reproductive life stage in order to ensure the survival of their business and the continued employment of their existing staff members? It is fine line to tread. What this business would certainly be able to do is to offer unpaid leave, take the hit on losing a valuable employee for a few months and use the employee's salary to employ a temporary stand-in until the employee returns to her job. This is fair.

What one must also remember is that employers do specify terms of employment. If you are at the life stage where you plan to start a family within a few years, you will go for work placements that offer perks like medical and paid maternity leave. Employment benefits (medical, pension, maternity) are a big drawcards (the history of the evolution of employee benefits is interesting). You have the choice to pass on offers that do not suit your lifestyle needs. But you can't go for a job that offers unpaid maternity leave and then later demand (or shout on social media) about how unfair it is that (your) employer does not give six months of unpaid leave. You knew this when you agreed to take the job.

Having a family is a life choice and it is not an employer's responsibility. They should be open about their offerings, and fair, considerate and accommodating in their treatment of employees - within reason and their means. 


I didn't even get into it this on Facebook but it does warrant comment.

It must be heartbreaking for a mother to leave her baby to go back to work (or a relief, for some!). It is the fortunate minority who have the means for one parent to stay home with the child while the other's single income is sufficient to support their family. Thus, unless you have a granny-nanny to care for your child, some form of paid-for childcare is required.

Childcare could be a domestic worker or nanny in your home, or a creche outside your home. Regardless, it costs. Both parents need to work to pay someone to care for your child eight hours a day. Later this extends to school, after-care and such.

Prize #1 would be a childcare facility at your place of employment, which bigger companies are able to provide. A small business, depending on their industry, may provide a space for school-age children to come to afterschool.

Even those with their own businesses may not be able to care for their child during the day so lack of childcare and cost of childcare is not only the worry of those who work for employers.

COVID has certainly mixed things up with closed schools and parents working from home who now juggle their work, child rearing and homeschooling. Nevermind the challenge of school holidays, this is now an all-year issue. Schools close again by Friday and parents have to again make plans.

Personal attacks

Of course, I did expect to be personally attacked. This is social media after all. A guy called me an idiot. A woman told me to 'Get over myself' for thinking that it is a privilege to recover from a new baby (no, I think it is a privilege to be paid a full salary to be on maternity leave for six months). And then one woman really jumped in with assumptions and proclamations about my personality, what I get up to during the day being self-employed (going to gym, out for long lunches and grocery shopping) and how I treat employees. 

And one woman had really thoughtful and considered comments that were constructive to the conversation. 

At the end of it all, I enjoyed being sparked by the original post, thinking about this topic, looking up odds online and spending time writing this blog.

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