Paid Maternity Leave is Good for Nonprofits, Including the Catholic Church

April 7, 2022

By Emily Martin and Abigail Jorgensen

Nonprofit organizations – such as Catholic dioceses – struggle with high turnover rates. When workers leave frequently, businesses may suffer as it becomes challenging to transmit social norms and knowledge about the organization. Furthermore, nonprofits may have difficulty recruiting new, talented workers if the job comes with long hours, uncompetitive pay, and subpar benefits. And yet, a nonprofit’s success relies on its ability to maintain a staff that is incentivized to stay with the organization.

Women make up 73% of the nonprofit workforce, compared to 48% of the business workforce. Because of this, nonprofits suffer even more than for-profit businesses when women look for more flexible work or leave the workforce altogether because of caregiving obligations and unsupportive business practices. Nonprofits – Catholic and otherwise – would benefit from instituting paid maternity leave that allows them to not only hire and retain talented workers, but also to uphold a company culture in line with their values.

To illustrate the advantages of paid maternity leave for both organizations and workers, we would like to introduce you to Columba, a 25-year-old woman who is recently married and plans to have kids as soon as financially feasible. Her husband has been working full time, but his income and Columba’s part-time job at her parish have not been making their monthly budget meeting easy. Columba’s current job does not make her eligible for maternity leave benefits, so she is considering a full-time job.

Who can afford to take maternity leave?

There are several ways that policies prevent women from taking or having the option to take maternity leave. We call these “drop points”: moments in the process of seeking maternity leave when taking leave becomes infeasible – or impossible. There are three major drop points for women in the United States.

The first drop point is that many places of employment simply do not offer maternity leave. Only 55% of firms in a recent survey offered new child leave for women – and 16% were required to do so by law.

Human resource representatives reported that the most common reason their organizations did not offer paid leave was cost. One could imagine that nonprofits, which often operate on minimal budgets, would be especially hesitant to offer maternity leave. However, the opposite is true. One study of 200 organizations in the U.S. found that while 42% of government contractors and 45% of commercial businesses offered paid parental leave, 48% of nonprofits did the same.

Unfortunately, this proportion does not hold for Catholic churches and dioceses. In the United States, only 31 of the 176 dioceses currently provide fully paid maternity leave – that is 18%. While women who work for nonprofits might be more likely to have paid maternity leave, if women work for the Catholic Church, that is not the case.

The second drop point for maternity leave is that not all working women are eligible for leave, despite what their official company policies claim. In 2019, human resource managers reported that on average only 68% of employees at their firm were eligible to claim maternity leave. This can occur for any number of reasons, but one common reason is that many women who (like Columba) work part-time do not qualify for maternity leave benefits. Because the majority of part-time workers are women, this poses an additional challenge for those who need maternity leave.

The third drop point is the financial infeasibility of unpaid maternity leave. For many families, unpaid leave is scarcely better than no leave, or finances make them equivalent. When a family is offered only unpaid leave, mothers have to return to work to pay the bills: “As many as 23% of employed mothers return to work within ten days of giving birth, because of their inability to pay living expenses without income.” And 66% of families with two parents and one or more children have both parents working, either both full-time or one full-time and one part-time.

Maternity leave is not equally available to all groups of people. Rather than having a preferential option for the poor in these policies, we mostly see accommodations for the rich. 28% of the highest-paid quartile of workers in the United States are eligible for maternity leave, while only 8% of the lowest-paid quartile of workers are. This inequality is also present with unpaid maternity leave, which is offered to 95% of the highest-paid workers and 82% of the lowest-paid workers.

In seeking maternity leave, impoverished and disadvantaged groups are more impacted. When California enacted a program that made formerly unpaid maternity leave paid at 55% or higher replacement wage for the first six weeks, the average amount of maternity leave taken went from 3 weeks to 6 weeks. But the amount of maternity leave taken for disadvantaged groups jumped even more: one additional week for mothers without a college education, and six additional weeks for Black mothers. These results demonstrate the reality that unpaid leave is functionally similar to no leave at all, especially for those who cannot afford to take unpaid options.

In addition to the benefits of paid maternity leave for women and families, there are several benefits for businesses.

Paid Maternity Leave Helps Organizations Attract High Quality Talent

Columba starts looking for a full-time job and finds a few, including one in her diocese that she is excited about. She starts researching what it is like to work for her diocese. She posts on her local Catholic women’s group page and chats with a few other women who work there. She learns that this position is available because the person who had just filled the role left when she became pregnant. Columba realizes that the diocese offers only unpaid maternity leave, so she begins considering other jobs that would provide paid leave.

Benefit packages are an important part of deciding which job provides the best options for the employee and his or her family. In particular, people often choose to apply for a non-profit over a government job to obtain more family-friendly policies and flexibility, and this is particularly true of women. Companies attract the talented workers they need with benefits such as paid maternity leave. In fact, 28% of HR representatives said this was a reason why paid leave was offered at their organization.

Paid Maternity Leave Improves Employee Retention

Retention is an acute problem for nonprofits, especially for employees under 30 years old; 46% of nonprofits listed this as the most challenging age group to retain. 30% of nonprofits reported that their company struggled to retain women, compared to only 14% who reported that they struggled to retain men. This group of employees that is the hardest to retain – young women – is also the group most likely to require or desire some form of maternity leave.

The fact that unpaid leave does not address the needs of most families introduces another problem: If women cannot afford to return to work, the company or organization will not be able to retain their employees. The financial benefits to organizations of providing maternity leave are numerous, but they center on the retention of excellent employees who are knowledgeable about the organization.

Retaining workers through benefits such as maternity leave may sound expensive, but the cost of losing talented workers who understand the company is staggering, estimated to be between 70% and 200% of an employee’s annual salary. And companies do in fact retain talented workers with paid maternity leave: 41% of HR representatives said that retaining talented workers was a reason why paid leave was offered at their organization. Does the option of paid leave actually help women return? Most certainly. 98% of women taking paid new child leave return to work. Paid maternity leave allows women to remain in the workforce and is associated with higher wages later in women’s careers. Some studies have found that while substantial maternity leave does not disincentivize returning to the workforce, too little maternity leave does.

Organizations Can Uphold Their Values by Offering Paid Maternity Leave

At 49% of organizations, the number one reason HR representatives cited for offering paid leave at their company was because it upholds their values. Similarly, 22% of HR representatives said that their company offers paid leave to improve the organization’s reputation. In other words, a willingness to offer paid maternity leave reflects positively on the business as a whole because it suggests a workplace that embraces women workers, family-friendly policies, and equitable working conditions.

Columba considers her values of love for the Catholic Church and of a potential future child, and applies to the diocesan job, as well as a job at a local company (which offers great benefits, including paid maternity leave). She receives offers from both. She and her husband run hypothetical budgets, trying to determine whether taking a position at the diocese would result in them needing to continue avoiding pregnancy while they build up enough savings to justify her taking a few months off to be with the baby. It would be so meaningful for her to work for the Catholic Church, but it would also be meaningful to know that she had organizational support if she becomes a mother. For many women in Columba’s place, the choice of whether to work for the Catholic Church is not an easy one, but paid maternity leave benefits could make it possible for women like her to work there – and continue their employment after starting a family.

Catholic Organizations Have an Opportunity to Live Out Their Values

If Catholic organizations want to attract talented workers, retain women employees, provide financial support for families, and uphold their pro-family values, they should institute paid maternity leave for their employees. Paid maternity leave benefits both families and companies financially. As such, Catholic organizations also stand to gain by implementing these policies.

In allowing more disadvantaged women to support their families and stay in the workforce, paid maternity leave is consistent with Catholic social teaching’s preferential option for the poor. Dioceses therefore have an opportunity to live out their values by providing paid maternity leave. If we, as Catholics, truly believe in a preferential option for the poor, we must consider that those who struggle to make enough income need paid leave even more than women from financially stable backgrounds. It is also important that we expand the eligibility for maternity leave benefits, including by providing options to part-time employees. With many families unable to survive on a single income, Catholic organizations have an opportunity to help their employees support their families with paid work after childbirth as part of the Church’s teachings on the dignity of marriage and the family.

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