Church

What's the State of Maternity Leave in the US Catholic Church? FemCatholic Investigates

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March 25, 2022

By Isabella Volmert, Kelly Sankowski and Renée Roden

When Christine John started researching her maternity leave options while working for the Archdiocese of Washington in 2017, she learned she would have to take short-term disability leave at 60% of her hourly pay. 

At the time, she was working part-time as the music director for Hispanic Liturgy at the Cathedral of St. Matthew the Apostle on the weekends, on top of her full-time job as assistant to Bishop Mario Dorsonville. Even though she and her husband were both employed and living in the more-affordable Washington D.C. suburbs, she knew they could not make ends meet with the pay cut. 

“Sixty percent pay was not enough to survive with a newborn,” she explained, “With the diapers and rent and food, it doesn’t cover everything.”

Ms. John, who was 27 at the time, recalled colleagues quitting after having children because they lacked financial support. She decided to advocate for a paid maternity leave policy at the archdiocese. 

After fruitless communication with the human resources department, Ms. John and her coworker wrote a letter to the Executive Secretary of the Curia in the archdiocese, asking for a maternity leave policy that was more “pro-life” and “pro-family.” He pushed the policy through. Today, the Archdiocese of Washington offers eight weeks of paid maternity and paternity leave – one of the most generous diocesan policies in the country. 

National State of Paid Maternity Leave

However, dioceses like the Archdiocese of Washington are the exception, not the rule.

FemCatholic reached out to the 176 dioceses across all 50 states and Washington, D.C., to confirm their family leave policies. Through telephone interviews with current and former diocesan employees, FemCatholic ascertained that 31 dioceses offer fully paid maternity leave policies, 32 provide some percentage of employee salaries through either short-term disability or state paid leave laws, and 44 do not offer any paid leave. 

Diocesan Leave Data
View Diocesan Leave Data Here

This data includes the 58 policies we were able to confirm with diocesan representatives, as well as information collected from employee handbooks and diocesan websites. 98 dioceses did not respond by press time, and 20 dioceses declined to provide answers or confirmation. The policies represented apply specifically to the central offices of the diocese – which often excludes parishes, schools or charitable agencies.

The length of the fully paid leave in U.S. Catholic dioceses ranges from five days to 12 weeks, with only four dioceses offering 12 weeks of fully paid leave. These diocesan policies broadly reflect overall national trends. Only 23% of Americans have access to paid parental leave, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

The United States is the sole member country in the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development that does not offer working women at least 12 weeks of paid maternity leave. Germany, one of Europe’s most populous countries, offers 12 weeks of paid leave. Canada offers mothers one year of leave, 39 weeks paid. The United Kingdom offers 52 weeks and provides mothers with state-funded childcare from the age of three until the child begins school. 

“We honestly held off on having another child until we came back to the UK,” said Sophie Caldecott, a writer from London who worked for two years at a Catholic women’s magazine in the United States. Her job as an editor provided financially for her family while her husband was on the academic job market. 

“I remember reading in my contract I had three months unpaid maternity leave – that was supposed to be a good thing,” said Ms. Caldecott. “But it’s still not feasible to have a child in that situation unless you have very good savings or a spouse or partner who’s working.”

Since the passage of the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA) in 1993, most workers in the United States are guaranteed the right to return to their jobs from a 12-week leave in order to care for a family member and bond with a new baby or an adopted child. In order to qualify for FMLA, the employee must have worked for their employer for at least a year for a minimum of 1,250 hours, and at a location of at least 50 employees. 

For many diocesan employees protected under FMLA, accrued paid time off can be used over their 12-week leave. However, women who are early in their careers or entering the workforce during the same years as starting a family often have not accrued enough paid time off to cover six weeks of maternity leave, much less twelve. Additionally, saving paid time off for post-birth maternity leave can shortchange mothers of sick leave they may need during their pregnancies.

At least 20 U.S. dioceses offer short-term disability insurance, a common system for covering maternity leaves. Short-term disability insurance, however, does not help families living paycheck to paycheck, as more than 60% of American families are. Any period of unpaid leave presents a problem to these families, even if both spouses work. 

As of 2015, nearly half of both parents in two-parent households are working full-time. Rather than being the “second income,” 70% of American mothers are, at some point in their child’s life, the sole or primary breadwinners, according to the Council on Contemporary Families. Younger women are continuing the trend of working more. Five years ago, nearly 80% of millennial women reported working full-time.

Over the past 30 years, as more women have joined the workforce, the Church has begun to employ more laypeople, with the number of lay ecclesial ministers working in parishes nearly doubling from 21,569 in 1990 to almost 40,000 in 2015. 

The increase of lay involvement in the Church is no accident. Official Catholic teaching encourages lay ministry in the church. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) dedicated a 2005 document, “Co-Workers in the Vineyard” to the “co-responsibility” of the laity. Lay Catholics, Pope Benedict XVI said, must be“truly recognized as ‘co-responsible’ for the Church’s being and action.” Personnel policies are often used to foster lay leadership, particularly the leadership of women. 

“The church deserves to have women in leadership,” said Kerry Robinson, a partner at Leadership Roundtable, an organization that promotes best management practices in the Catholic Church. “We have to have policies that incentivize and enable women to excel in their work.”

Given the United States’ position as the only member state of the United Nations without national paid leave, the Catholic Church in the United States has the opportunity to be “a prophetic voice,” one former diocesan employee from the Mid-Atlantic Region, who wished to remain anonymous, said.

“To be able to say, ‘We are going to advocate for this; we are going to model it. This is a good place to work,’” the employee said. “‘We will show you that a holistic life of work and family and prayer can go together, and that is what makes up a Catholic life.’”

Why US Dioceses Lack Paid Leave

Dioceses lack paid leave for a variety of reasons: there’s no legal requirement, they have a small staff or they believe staff can cover maternity through accrued time off and disability insurance. The largest percent of dioceses surveyed by FemCatholic do not offer paid leave, but offer the amount of unpaid leave required by state or federal family leave laws. 

“If it were the law to offer paid leave, we would offer that,” said Maya Alamillo, speaking for the Archdiocese of Portland, Oregon. 

The Diocese of Grand Island, in central Nebraska, doesn’t provide paid leave due to demographics. Their chancery office has 18 staff members. Though 14 are women, none of them are of child-bearing age, according to Chancellor Kathy Hahn. 

The Diocese of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, allows its employees to accrue up to 16 weeks of paid sick time at a rate of 143 hours per year. These sick days, along with accrued vacation time, can be cashed in while on FMLA leave, a common practice among dioceses without paid family leave.

If a woman in the Diocese of Harrisburg runs out of paid time off during the six to eight week recovery period after giving birth, she is able to receive short-term disability at 60% of her pay. Given the general rule of a six-week recovery period for vaginal delivery and eight weeks after for a cesarean section, most short-term disability benefits are only available through the eight weeks after birth, although complications from birth such as postpartum bleeding and urinary incontinence can last longer.

After a group of Harrisburg employees asked for more time off, the diocese created a parental leave policy, which allows all employees of the diocese to apply for an additional 12 weeks of unpaid parental leave after FMLA. Some employers within the diocese offer yet another 12 weeks on top of that for a total of 36 weeks of unpaid leave. Upon returning to work, employees who take the full 36 weeks of leave are not guaranteed the same job but are guaranteed a job with equivalent pay, benefits, and seniority.

The Diocese of Harrisburg’s Human Resources Director Janet Jackson said the use of sick time, vacation and short-term disability to provide pay during their period of leave seems to satisfy staff, and they have “never had a group of female staff lobbying us” for a separate paid maternity leave policy.

“They use what is available to the best of their advantage and have never asked for more,” Ms. Jackson said.

The Diocese of Birmingham, Alabama, which serves around 110,000 Catholics and employs around 1,300 people in its parishes, schools, chancery and social services, does not offer paid parental leave. Director of Communication and Public Relations Donald Carson said implementing a paid leave policy would be an issue of funding. 

“You do have to make sure that you can account for how that’s going to be paid for,” he said. “Personally, I think it’s definitely something that we can take a look at. But I can’t say that that right now is on the table for the diocese.”

Several diocesan employees told FemCatholic that paid parental leave policies for their diocesan offices don’t cost anything above already-budgeted employee salaries.

“It really doesn’t cost anything,” said Lisa Kutas, the Human Resources Director in the Diocese of Lansing. “The vast majority of our folks are salaried, so there’s maybe a couple of weeks where they’re not going to be productive, they’re going to take that time off anyway.”

Diocese Who Offer Paid Leave

The Diocese of Raleigh, North Carolina, which offers 12 weeks of paid leave to all eligible employees, including schools, parishes and diocesan agencies, does so in part “to remain one step ahead of our state schools which is our main competitor when trying to hire teachers,” said Maureen House, the Human Resources Manager for the diocese.

Holy Name of Jesus Cathedral in Raleigh, NC

It costs the Diocese of Raleigh an average of $433,663 in gross wages per year to provide paid parental leave to its employees. Prior to the implementation of the diocese’s paid employee and family medical leave program, employees were required to use paid time off while on FMLA, so in many cases, the costs are the same. 

“It wasn’t cost-neutral, but we definitely felt that it was worth it – to go back to Catholic Social Teaching – to honor the family, to give people the chance to not have to choose between their livelihood or their family members or their own health,” Ms. House said. In 2021, 20 of their employees took parental leave.

The dioceses who do offer paid leave have a variety of motivations for doing so. Some dioceses are simply following the law. Others are offering paid leave in an effort to put their faith in action. In either employee handbooks or conversations with FemCatholic, more than a dozen dioceses explicitly cited wanting to support families or be open to life as reasons for offering paid leave. 

Based on data from diocesan financial reports, a diocese’s assets do not correlate with the amount of paid leave offered. The four dioceses that offer the longest paid parental leave –  the Archdiocese of Chicago, the Archdiocese of New York, the Diocese of Raleigh and the Archdiocese of Omaha –  have very different financial makeups, with 2020 total assets at $3.8 billion, $804 million, $193 million and $71 million, respectively. Chicago has $1,769 in assets per Catholic, while Raleigh has $836, Omaha has $296 and New York has just $287.

Comparisons between dioceses on the lower end of the financial spectrum also illustrate a lack of correlation. The Diocese of Tucson, which offers its employees five days of paid leave, has $39 in assets per Catholic. The Diocese of Yakima, which offers 12-18 weeks of up to 90% of an employee’s pay, has about $48 in assets per Catholic. And the Diocese of Tyler, which does not offer any paid parental leave, has $80 in assets per Catholic. 

What many dioceses with paid leave do have in common, however, is responsiveness to the needs and requests of employees. 

Sarah Comiskey, the Director of Communications for the Archdiocese of New Orleans, Louisiana, said when their policy of six weeks of paid leave was being implemented eight years ago, they heard stories from many young families who were struggling to make ends meet without paid leave.

“That was a big driver,” she said. 

The Archdiocese of Cincinnati, Ohio has an employee committee that solicits feedback from their colleagues on the archdiocese’s policies. Through this process, the archdiocese recently increased their paid maternity and paternity leave from three to four weeks and instituted two weeks of paid leave for parents suffering a pregnancy loss due to miscarriage or stillbirth.

The Diocese of Erie, Pennsylvania, is currently in the process of reworking its employee handbook. The diocese recently expedited a maternity and paternity leave policy because there were several employees who gave birth. They gave those employees six weeks of paid leave.

“I was so delighted to see these young women have a little bit of time to catch their breath,” said Anne-Marie Welsh, the Director of Communications for the Erie diocese. “I know from experience how valuable that was.”

Ms. Welsh, a mother of three, recalled when she had her children three decades ago, her experience without access to paid leave was “a bit of a nightmare.” She had to use her vacation time to take six weeks off when her children were born. Therefore, she didn’t have a lot of paid time off to spend with her children in their first year of life.

“I didn’t think it was doing myself or my employer any favors that I rushed back,” she said.

But even dioceses that have paid leave policies in place acknowledge there are improvements to be made. 

In the United States, an employer can require spouses who work at the same organization to share their leave time. One diocesan representative described this policy like being “penalized for being married.” While the Archdiocese of Chicago offers its paid parental leave policy to both spouses, seven other dioceses with paid parental leave require their employees if spouses to split the time between them. For dioceses like Austin, which offers 10 days of paid leave, that means the mother in a family would get five days of paid leave and the father would get five days as well. 

Some dioceses have separate family leave policies for the chancery than for other diocesan agencies. Maureen House said, in the Diocese of Raleigh, the decision to implement their policy for all eligible diocesan employees across parishes, schools and agencies was a justice issue. 

“It would be unjust to offer such a benefit to only one small group of people when everyone has families,” she said.

From left Cannon, Katie, Quinn, and Kevin Alexander

Katie Alexander is a grade school music and art teacher in the Archdiocese of St. Louis, which offers 20 days of paid parental leave to diocesan employees, including schools. When she gave birth to her first child in late 2014, she regretted not taking more time off to recover and be with her daughter. When her second child came along three years later, she utilized all 20 days of available paid leave.

Ms. Alexander said while she is a salaried worker, her husband is an hourly paid landscaper. Her family has what she described as an unpredictable income. 

“So to lose the steady income would be detrimental to us,” she said, describing the times before her full-time job when the couple went without heat or hot water. “We wouldn’t have considered having children because we wouldn’t have been able to provide a safe environment for them without that.” 

The Clear Benefits of Paid Family Leave

Olivia Cossell, a former full-time strategic planning associate with the Archdiocese of Chicago, gave birth to her first child in the summer of 2017, one year after the policy had been instated. The Archdiocese of Chicago offers one of the most extensive diocesan parental leave policies in the country, with three months of paid leave provided for both female and male employees for the birth of a new child, adoption, or foster care. Additionally, couples can then take an additional three months of unpaid leave.

Cossell took four months of leave following a c-section delivery.

“Honestly, I needed every day of that,” she said. 

Women need physical recovery time after birth. Yet roughly one in four working mothers return to their jobs within two weeks of giving birth, according to a 2012 report from the Department of Labor. 

At two weeks postpartum, women are likely still bleeding heavily, cramping, and experiencing vaginal or abdominal pain from delivery. On top of that, they are suffering from a chronic lack of sleep from caring for a newborn who does not yet know the difference between day and night. Due to fluctuating hormones, about 80% of new mothers experience sadness known as the “baby blues,” and around 13% experience postpartum depression. 

“I think it’s appalling that we don’t have a mandated paid maternity leave,” said Dr. Les Ruppersberger, OBGYN, former president of the Catholic Medical Association . 

Studies consistently show that paid maternity leave clearly benefits women’s health. Just eight weeks of paid maternity leave has been shown to decrease the symptoms and severity of postpartum depression by 15%. Paid leave also lowers the incidences of rehospitalization after giving birth from complications, according to a study published recently in the Harvard Review of Psychiatry. 

The United States currently has the highest rate of maternal mortality among developed nations, and it increased in 2020 – exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. Additionally, Black women are three times more likely than white women to die from a pregnancy-related condition. 

Paid maternity leave is also critical for the health of the newborn and reduces infant mortality by 12%, according to a 2020 study. Babies need time with their mothers, and paying mothers to stay with them bears fruit in a cornucopia of physical and developmental benefits. Studies show overwhelmingly that paid maternity leave increases the frequency of breastfeeding and mothers continue breastfeeding longer. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends one year of breastfeeding to build up a baby’s immune system. The Academy even links breastfeeding to higher intelligence and education levels later in life. And, in 2020, the Academy endorsed a 12 week maternity leave – at a minimum.

Although short-term disability can give a woman who has just given birth time to physically recover, Kerry Robinson, of Leadership Roundtable, said that the best managerial practices meant offering paid family leave.

“It’s about the health of the family,” Ms. Robinson said. “It’s another way the Church can be imaginative and holistic in its commitment to putting people first.”

Not only is paid family leave good for mothers and families, but it’s good for organizations. A key way to attract and retain talented lay employees, experts like Lisa Kutas, Human Resources Director at the Diocese of Lansing, Michigan say, is to offer generous family leave.

“We have so many talented people,” Kutas said. “And because we can’t pay them what we know they’re worth, what we can do is to compensate them in other ways.”

Kutas was among several diocesan representatives who cited the desire to attract and retain young talent as an important reason to implement paid leave policies. 

Women make up 73% of the nonprofit workforce, according to the 2009 White House Project Report. Nearly two million women left the workforce during the pandemic, almost all of them to care for children. But women who have paid leave during their child’s infancy tend to stay in the workforce. Maureen House, the Human Resources Manager for the Diocese of Raleigh, said implementing their paid leave policy has made a big difference in the retention of employees.

“Back before paid family leave, people were feeling rushed to go back to work,” she explained. “Whereas if we are able to offer them as much leave as we can – it has been really great from a retention standpoint.”

But implementing maternity leave alone isn't enough, new parents say. Working families say they need support in the months and years following the birth of a child, including flexible work schedules and childcare options.

After Christine John took her eight weeks of maternity leave from the Archdiocese of Washington, following an unplanned, grueling c-section, she did not feel supported when she returned to work. After having to advocate for her leave, a private and sanitary place to pump breast milk, and a more flexible work environment, she was exhausted. She decided to take a new job that offered three months of paid leave and a room she could pump in that had a couch, a lock, and a fridge for the milk.

“I felt like I had to fight too much for something I should have already been given, especially in the Church,” said Ms. John. “They tell us to get married, have Catholic babies – you literally make a vow that you will accept all the kids that God will give you – and then you get no support from the Church.”

The Church on Maternity Leave 

How does change happen in the Catholic Church? One shepherd relies on his flock to lead the way. 

Co-responsibility, for Bishop William Wack, C.S.C., means relying on others to help bring up new ideas and point out blind spots. He hopes his brother bishops can foster this same openness. 

“Don’t be afraid to listen to those around you,” he said, “Their end goal is to help you be a better, more effective bishop.”

Bishop Wack was appointed Bishop of Pensacola-Tallahassee, Florida, in 2017. But he only learned his diocese didn’t offer paid maternity leave when someone asked him about it a few months ago. 

“It’s something that I’d like to do, even if it’s just a minimum,” Bishop Wack said. “It’s embarrassing that we don’t have anything. If we say we’re pro-family and pro-life, then we really have to do that.” 

Having a baby is expensive, with the average hospital bill for a delivery without complications in the United States being $10,808 before insurance. Then, once the baby arrives, there is the cost of food, diapers, and childcare among other expenses.

During the 2019-2020 financial year, the USCCB reported spending $2 million on pro-life activities. This report does not include the spending of individual dioceses. The USCCB hasn’t taken a stance on paid maternity leave legislation. Paid family leave falls under the Domestic Justice Committee’s purview rather than the Pro-Life Committee. 

“Yet so many women feel like they can't choose life, especially women doing shift-work or hourly work who aren’t salaried,” one young woman said, speaking on background out of concern for her employment. “As a pro-life woman working for the Church, it’s surprising to me that it’s not more talked about.”

The issue of paid maternity leave is intertwined with inequality. Women who are more likely to have paid maternity leave in the United States are white, upper class, and salaried. Women who are less likely to have access to paid maternity leave are Black, Latina, and lower-wage workers – the same people who are also less likely to have savings to cover a period of unpaid leave.

Recent Church leaders have written frequently on women’s participation in the economy as a moral issue worth prioritizing. In his 2015 address to the Italian National Institute of Social Security, Pope Francis said, “May your priorities include special attention to women’s employment, as well as to maternity assistance which must always defend new life and those who serve it daily. Defend women, women’s employment.” 

The Vatican State itself offers new mothers six months of paid leave after a child is born at 50% pay and now offers three days of paternity leave.

Kerry Robinson, of Leadership Roundtable, said, “Who else should be the gold standard of generous parental leave policies than the Catholic Church?”

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Additional research by Abigail Jorgensen, Emily Martin, and Sophie-Anne Sachs.

FemCatholic launched a campaign in response to this report. Learn more and sign the Letter to Bishops here.

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