Catholic publisher Ascension Press has announced a new 12-week paid maternity leave policy. Senior staff at Ascension credit FemCatholic’s reporting on the issue last year as an inspiration and guidance in creating these policies.

The new policies, which took effect March 1, 2023, include 12 weeks of paid leave for new mothers, 6 weeks of paid leave for fathers, and 6 weeks of paid leave for adoptive parents.

Employees must have worked 12 consecutive months at the company to be eligible for these policies. If they have worked at Ascension Press for less than a year, the employee is pro-rated the number of weeks of maternity leave in accordance with how much they have worked (e.g., 3 paid weeks for 3 months of work, 6 weeks for 6 months, etc.).

Advocating for a Change in Maternity Leave Policies

The United States is the only developed nation without guaranteed paid maternity leave. The Family Medical Leave Act mandates 12 weeks of unpaid leave for workers, yet approximately one in four new mothers go back to work 2 weeks after giving birth, according to a 2012 report.

Ascension Press leaders cited the FemCatholic reports of 2022 as a strong incentive to update their policies. “At least three people brought in FemCatholic’s reporting as advocating for a change,” said Cassie Schmidt, Manager of People & Culture (human resources).

Schmidt was one of the first employees to use the adoption leave this past May, when she adopted two children already in her home through foster care.

In November 2021, human resources surveys made it clear that employees felt a need for a new maternity and paternity leave policy, Schmidt said. Ascension Press’ staff is 72% female and nearly two-thirds of the company’s employees are working parents.

Ascension Press saw family leave as an important issue for employee satisfaction, but realized their leave policies could better reflect their company commitment to pro-life and Catholic values, Schmidt said.

In particular, FemCatholic’s reporting on deficiencies in short-term disability schemes to cover maternity leave helped Ascension’s leadership understand why their current short-term disability insurance plan was not enough for mothers, Schmidt said.

“They were definitely moving in the direction [of 12 paid weeks] and FemCatholic’s reporting dropped at convenient cadence to help push them forward,” said Lauren Joyce, Communications Manager, who was one of the Ascension employees who brought forward FemCatholic’s report in support of policy changes.

Previously, Ascension Press’ policy had been one week of paid leave for new mothers and fathers, and mothers who gave birth vaginally or via cesarean section could apply for short-term disability leave that would cover 60% pay for up to six weeks. Adoptive parents and families who had suffered a miscarriage or stillborn child did not have any paid leave. Mothers now receive up to 12 weeks of paid leave after a pregnancy loss, and their spouses receive 6 paid weeks.

Paid Leave Supports Family Bonding and Health

In the past decade, Ascension Press has nearly doubled its staff. It is now a fully remote company of 92 full- and part-time employees living in 32 states, and brings in a yearly revenue of more than $20 million. Jonathan Strate, president and chief executive officer says that their decision to offer these policies is not based on the policies’ price tag.

“The cost is definitely a consideration,” Strate said in a phone interview. But he noted that Ascension Press’ turnover rate hovers around 5%, which is extremely low. Strate said policies that show employees they are valued as persons and that prioritize their families save company costs by reducing turnover. “It actually might be more expensive to not have these programs,” he added.

Strate is a father of six, and he noted that unpaid leave is impractical for families trying to save up for the necessary items for the new baby, especially young families. His experience as a dad inspired the 6-week paternity leave.

“Usually as a father, paternity leave is not very long, maybe about a week,” he said. Often, parents feel the urge to get back to work, especially if one spouse is on unpaid leave. “But, when you do that, you miss out on the baby-bonding time, and that’s only going to happen once,” Strate added.

Besides parental bonding, family leave is a health issue. Strate said he was struck by the stat that 47% of infant deaths (deaths for children under five years old) happen in the first 28 days of life.

“If a mother and father are home with the baby during that time, they’re more likely to catch the signs that something might be off,” Strate said.

“Besides the physical healing, in the ‘fourth trimester,’ you’re working through bonding with the baby, relationship changes, sleep deprivation, and maybe other issues: emotional changes, pelvic floor issues,” said Dr. Suzanne Bovone, MD, an OB/GYN practicing at Stanford Health, in a phone interview. She noted that patients who experience a lot of prenatal care often find themselves piecing together medical help on their own during the 12 weeks after the baby is born, a period which is increasingly becoming known as the “fourth trimester.”

“I wish we had dedicated services provided in that postpartum period to mental health, lactation, pelvic floor, sexual function, but it’s all segregated,” she said. “Patients have to go find it for themselves, and that takes time – and patients’ insurance might not cover it,” she added.

“If everyone was guaranteed 12 weeks’ full salary, that would be phenomenal. Six months would be great,” she said.

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends at least 12 weeks of paid leave for the health of the mother and to reduce infant mortality. The World Health Organization's recommendation is, at the very least, 14 weeks of paid maternity leave.

“The more you dig into these stats, the more you see this is an important time that can’t be made up later,” Strate said. Of Ascension Press’ recent policy change, he said: “It’s a very pro-life policy, and we think it sends the right message.”

Renée Roden

Editor of Special Projects, 2021-present

Renée Darline Roden holds a B.A. and M.T.S. in theology from the University of Notre Dame and an M.S. in journalism from Columbia University. She is the executive director of Catholic Artist Connection and a freelance writer and playwright. Her plays have appeared at The Tank and the Bushwick Starr in New York City and at universities in Dallas and South Bend. Her writing has appeared in the Associated Press, Washington Post, Religion News Service, The Tablet, and America Magazine. She lives at St. Francis Catholic Worker House in Chicago.

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