Why Short-Term Disability for Maternity Leave Doesn’t Meet Mothers' Needs

June 21, 2022

In her 2019 book-length investigation, Invisible Women, British journalist Caroline Criado Perez examines the specific ways in which a supposedly "gender neutral" world is designed for male bodies. In short, data is collected mostly on men and male bodies; women’s bodies are often left out of studies because of their physical complexities. Thus, women are left out of datasets, and so left out of the data that our world is constructed upon, and a pernicious cycle continues that renders women's experiences invisible.

One of the most common systems for offering women maternity leave is providing women with “short-term disability” insurance plans. FemCatholic confirmed that at least 29 out of the 176 dioceses in the United States offer short-term disability insurance programs for women to cover their time off after giving birth. Some of these policies are paid for by employers, others are mandatory state-funded insurance programs, and still others are insurance policies that women have to opt into and pay premiums for out of pocket.

How Short-Term Disability Policies Work

Most short-term disability insurance policies cover leave for six weeks following vaginal delivery without complications and eight weeks following a cesarean section. Yet, some research shows that women aren't fully healed from childbirth until a full year after birth. And the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends at least 12 weeks of bonding leave to improve the health of the new baby.

Short-term disability leave policies also generally cover a certain percentage of an employee's salary (usually around 50-60% of employee pay), despite the fact that at least 64% of Americans are living paycheck to paycheck. And the arrival of a new family member brings increased expenses. For example, the average cost of a hospital delivery in the United States is $10,000.

Some dioceses, like the Archdiocese of San Francisco, will pay the additional 50-40% of pay needed to make up the remainder of the employee’s salary – but the majority do not.

Although short-term disability insurance policies are certainly more beneficial for employees than the 12 weeks of unpaid leave that is federally protected through FMLA, these policies are not designed for the unique experience of pregnancy.

Why Short-Term Disability Can’t Substitute Maternity Leave

One former school employee in the Diocese of Arlington received short-term disability leave for a severe injury during the winter of the 2016-2017 school year. After using up a month of sick time, she received 90 days of fully paid leave, plus paid time off during the school's Easter break.

After 90 days, she was cleared by her doctor to come back to work for 20 hours a week, rather than the full 40, which her school accommodated. She had four years of sick leave built up that made a month of sick leave possible, and the remainder of her accrued sick leave was used concurrently with the short-term disability leave.

Three and a half years later, in September 2020, this same employee got pregnant. A pandemic policy allowed teachers to work from home if they felt sick, which she did when she experienced morning sickness at the beginning of her pregnancy.

Since her sick days would be used up concurrently with her maternity leave, the teacher took intermittent sick days to rest on difficult days toward the end of her pregnancy. But when she took sick days to rest, she said that the school pressured her to come into work. The short-term disability policy only entitled her to six weeks of maternity leave, and she would have lost her ability to accrue sick leave the following school year.

The employee felt that categorizing maternity leave under short-term disability was the wrong choice.

The injury that required her to go through intense physical therapy and take short-term disability wasn't a recovery from a surgery. "Birth, whether vaginally or through a c-section, is a major trauma to the body,” she said. “You just birthed a human who is putting you through the torture of sleep deprivation, but they don't give you the time to recover from that."

Because of her experience with this maternity leave policy, she left teaching.

"I felt like neither mine nor any mother's needs were being met at this school," she said. "It really rubbed me the wrong way that I was working at a Catholic institution and teaching students to be pro-family and pro-life, but wasn't getting that from the school."

One diocesan employee in the midwest said that she had a vaginal birth that was, in her words, traumatic. Her son was born unable to breathe and she had serious tearing during the birthing process.

She came back to work after taking two weeks with paid time off and then six weeks on short-term disability at 66% of her pay. Upon her return, she received an email stating that the final two weeks of her leave were not going to be covered by the short-term disability policy.

She spent the next several months appealing this decision to the insurance policy. The employee's midwife provided several letters, one of which outlined the severity of her tears and her son's difficulties at birth. The employee was able to get the two weeks she was originally promised covered when her midwife detailed the employee's symptoms of postpartum depression.

“My physical trauma from birth was not sufficient for them,” the employee said. "I’m not sure if it’s some insurance code or people don't understand how traumatic childbirth is. I don’t know."

She noted that she was fighting this insurance battle for five months after her return to work, on top of learning how to be a mom, caring for her child after work, and providing financially for her family while her husband was in medical school.

"I had to jump through hoop after hoop after hoop," she said.

Kerry Robinson, a partner at Leadership Roundtable, which advises church leadership on co-responsible business practices, said that short-term disability insurance policies may address the medical needs of the female body, but fail to address the needs of the family during the “fourth trimester." The fourth trimester, as the 12 weeks after birth is sometimes called, isn’t just about recovering from an intense physical process of delivery – it’s also about family bonding and the emotional development of mother and child.

"The bonding and building up of the family that's happening after a baby is born is important and worth our investment," said Robinson. 

We Need Policies Made with Women’s Bodies in Mind

As Criado Perez details in her book, it is a continued injustice to try to squeeze the female body into a world designed for men, while ignoring their unique needs. Pregnancy is not a disability or an abnormality of the female body. And maternity leave is a combination of recuperation and healing after the intense process of birth, as well as a continued period of care for a developing human and mother-infant bonding.

As the former employee of the Diocese of Arlington said, "I'm not a disabled person because I'm pregnant, but there are considerations that need to be made because I'm pregnant, or because I'm a new mother and my mind is being taxed, my body is being taxed."

While pregnancy and maternity may be an abnormality in a world designed for male bodies, the process of pregnancy, birth, and maternity leave is neither a disruption nor disability – it is a natural process for female bodies. The difficulty American workplaces have in accommodating that process shows how unwilling American work culture is to include female bodies along with male bodies.

There are many urgent reasons to create paid leave parental policies for families. The health of mothers and infants depends upon it. It incentivizes worker retention. It makes individual women, children, and families happier and healthier, and also promotes a culture of life.

But also, women say, women deserve to have policies designed specifically for their needs and their bodies. What could dioceses with short-term disability policies do better to support their female employees who are mothers? The diocesan employee in the midwest had a simple solution:

"They just need to provide real maternity leave."

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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