US NAVY | In a speech at the U.S. Naval Academy, Navy Secretary Ray Mabus announced that he will propose legislation to double the paid maternity leave available to enlisted women from the current six weeks to 12 weeks starting next year.
In a preface to his call for increased maternity leave, Mabus noted that women graduate in greater numbers from American colleges, yet “the military at large lags society” in terms of women’s representation. “[W]e need more women in the Navy and Marine Corps; not simply to have more women, but because a more diverse force is a stronger force,” he said. Increasing diversity, he said, “is critically important both to the quality of our all volunteer force, but also important to fulfilling the principles of the democracy we defend.” Women currently make up 18 percent of those in active Naval service and 17 percent of officers.
Currently, all women in the military get six weeks of leave for the birth of a child, while new fathers get just ten days. Changing the Navy’s leave policy, or that of any branch of the armed services, would require action from Congress. And Congress has taken a version of this cause up in the past: an amendment to an annual defense bill, know as the Military Opportunities for Mothers (MOM) Act, was introduced by Reps. Tammy Duckworth (D-IL) and Kristi Noem (R-SD) last year and would have added six unpaid weeks of maternity leave for birth mothers.
Advocates had called for more, however, noting that the leave isn’t available to fathers or adoptive parents. They noted that the Family and Medical Leave Act, which guarantees 12 weeks of unpaid, job-protected leave, applies to mothers and fathers alike as well as parents who adopt.
Even without changes, however, military members are guaranteed more leave than most Americans. There is no national requirement that employees have access to paid family leave, although three states have enacted their own programs. Just 12 percent of employees in the private sector get paid time off for the arrival of a new baby.
Some private sector employers have also recently announced paid leave increases similarly aimed at attracting more women. When Google made such a change, its attrition rate dropped by 50 percent.
The Navy’s leave proposal is part of “tak[ing] a holistic approach to supporting families,” Mabus said. Another part that he announced in the speech is extending the drop off and pick up hours for the Navy’s Child Care Development Centers. These child care centers serve children ages six weeks to five years and parents pay an amount based on their incomes. The Navy has also already created 24/7 centers in three areas. The extra hours “should mean that Sailors don’t have to worry about child care centers not opening early enough or closing too early,” he explained.
That’s another big benefit those in the Navy enjoy as compared to most Americans. The United States once had a universal, affordable child care system during World War II, but it was shut down after the war effort. Today, the country ranks 21st among developed countries for how much it spends on early childhood education and few children are cared for in actual centers or schools. Nine states have passed universal preschool programs, but only Florida, Oklahoma, and Vermont have more than 70 percent of preschoolers enrolled. Meanwhile, child care can cost as much as $10,000 a year.