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Beyond Iowa Nice: Family Leave and Bridging the Wage Gap

JFK Presidential Library and Museum
Wikimedia Commons
American Association of University Women members with President John F. Kennedy as he signs the Equal Pay Act into law

While she was pregnant with her first child, Libby Buchmeier had been banking her vacation in anticipation of taking time off after the birth. When Buchmeier's daughter arrived 10 weeks early, she had to use the four weeks of paid maternity leave offered by her employer and much of that accumulated vacation time while her baby girl was in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit.

Libby Buchmeier with her daughter, born 10 weeks premature

After Buchmeier was able to take her daughter home, she was cautioned by doctors not to put the baby in daycare, because of the risk of contracting RSV, a severe respiratory complication that often affects preemies. Buchmeier was lucky. Her employer offered a sabbatical program, usually reserved for professional development. They allowed her to take a six month sabbatical, with full pay and benefits, and stay at home with her daughter. The only stipulation was that she commit to staying with the organization for another two years. She stayed for seven. "It gave me this sense of loyalty to the organization that they would go above and beyond for me and my family," says Buchmeier

Laura Newsome was in a far different position when she became pregnant about six months ahead of when she and her husband had planned. She was a graphic designer working on contract in Los Angeles, so wasn't covered by any maternity leave policy. She had to stop working to have her baby. "We ran up a pretty good credit card bill until I was able to get back to work and we were able to find child care for our daughter," she says.

So. Much. Money. I've probably lost millions, and I'm not even kidding. - Gail

When the couple decided to expand their family, they knew they couldn't afford to do it in California, so they returned to their home state of Iowa. Then, the Great Recession made finding another graphic design job in a new city almost impossible. So, Newsome decided to step out of the workforce until her children were in school. While she doesn't regret the decision, she knows it cost her "thousands of dollars."

In fact, stepping out of the workforce is extremely costly for families. The Center for American Progress has released new findings that try to quantify that cost. Here is one example from their website:

"Jane is a middle-class worker with a job as a first-grade teacher. She earns $44,000 annually. She has a baby when she is 26 years old, the average age of a first-time mother in the United States.

During the five years that Jane is out of the labor force, she will lose her $44,000 salary each year, so a simple estimate of the opportunity cost of caring for her child until kindergarten is $220,000. A five-year career interruption means Jane will lose out on an estimated $265,000 in lifetime wage growth, plus another $222,000 in retirement benefits. In fact, we estimate that taking five years off will cost her nearly $707,000, in today’s dollars, over her lifetime—or roughly 3.2 times as much as her lost wages alone."

Stepping out of the workforce "almost certainly," contributes to the wage gap between men and women. That's according to Colin Gordon Professor of History at the University of Iowa and Senior Research Consultant at the Iowa Policy Project. Working women in the U.S. on average, still earn 78 cents for every dollar earned by a man. In Iowa that disparity is even greater, with women earning 77.4 cents for every dollar. While the Family and Medical Leave Act allows for 12 weeks of unpaid leave for working mothers, the U.S. is the only industrialized nation that doesn't mandate some form of paid leave for new parents.

Here's what a handful of Iowans who emailed the show had to say:

It was a big decision for me that I spent a year planning so I could afford it. It cost me a lot cause I had a great job with great stock benefits. The monetary lost was big, BUT the life benefits were bigger. - Heidi

We waited to have kids so that I could stay home with my kids, I worked part time after my first since my husband was still a post doc at the time but stayed home full time after my second and i am so glad i did it,but yes we definitely are behind in the college funds because of it! - Patti

After much debate, I took an eight-year hiatus from a career in marketing to stay home with my kids. I don't have any regrets as I kept myself busy forming my own company and doing side projects. What I do regret is not being prepared for the backlash re-entering the workforce. I was told by one woman that my trajectory had peaked. After taking a job, I felt as though I was proving to the world that I was still worth something. - Katy

I stayed at home with all 4 of my kiddos because my income would have basically paid for daycare and that is it. - Katrina

Went part time for years. Costs financially in so many ways. Grateful I stayed in the workforce. - Dawn

I left my teaching job , and returned to teaching 9 years later. During that 9 years, I obtained my M.A. and moved from San Diego to Iowa City. I make $7,000 less than when I left San Diego. I don't regret leaving the classroom to tend to my own children, but it was a difficult decision. - Kathleen

Stayed home for 14 years with four daughters , and never regretted it. Jokingly, I say the only time I regret staying home for 14 years is when I realized how much money I could have gained in my IPERS checks after I retired!!! - Nira

If I had it to do over again, I would have gone back to work. Even with the cost of child care, it would have reduced the debt we incurred from having a one-income family, while paying back student loans and very high medical bills (we had a high deductible insurance plan, the only plan offered by my husbands employer). Also, I believe going back to work sooner would have clued me in much faster that I was in need of assistance in dealing with post-partum depression. - Anonymous

In my case, it was hard to find supervisors in my work hierarchy that would be either sympathetic or empathetic to a me as a working mother. I had risen to a position where I knew how much more the men in my company made that I did.  I suspect I lost more than the average money by leaving my employment at that company, but I had to balance the needs of the present with the potential regrets of the future.  “If I live to be 80 or more”, I thought, would I find myself saying ‘If only – if only I had stayed at my job? or ‘If only – if only I had been there for my family?’”  That quickly guided my decision when I resigned to stay home to help guide, educate, and provide my time for my family instead of a company that clearly did not care whether I met my family obligations or not. - Linda

Charity Nebbe is the host of IPR's Talk of Iowa
Katherine Perkins is IPR's Program Director for News and Talk