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Crowdfunding Employees Among Few Who Don't Have to Crowdfund Maternity Leave

In the absence of federally mandated paid maternity leave, women the in the United States are turning to sites like GoFundMe to pay for what is considered a human right around the world.
April 12, 2016, 7:45pm
Photo by Treasures & Travels via Stocksy

Need a visual representation of the grim state of unpaid maternity leave in the US? Search "maternity leave" on GoFundMe; it brings up over 1,400 results. Take a quick scroll through these pages, set up by women who need donations just so they can stay home from work to care for their infants. As TODAY reported last week, in the only industrialized country without a paid maternity policy, new moms are turning to crowdfunding sites to offset the costs of unpaid leave.

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"Because my job is physically demanding I will be medically obligated to go on maternity leave for anywhere from 1-2 months (between late pregnancy and early post-partum)," writes one mother, who has no choice but to take unpaid leave, in a GoFundMe campaign for her and her son, Finn. "The funds I'm trying to raise are just enough to make sure that I have enough for rent so that there's no worry that Finn and I will end up homeless while I'm unable to work."

So far she's raised over half of her goal of $2,500, but others who set up campaigns aren't as lucky. There are many calls for maternity leave donations on the site that have been up for months but boast zero dollars raised. But regardless of whether their campaigns are successful, women who don't have access to paid leave view crowdfunding as one of the only options that will allow them to take time off work after giving birth.

"Growing a family should be a time of great joy, but the realities of paying for maternity leave are putting financial strain on many American families," Kelsea Little, the media director for GoFundMe, told Broadly in an email. "We are incredibly proud to provide a platform that allows new parents to raise the funds necessary to spend precious moments with their children."

According to GoFundMe, the site has helped women raise up to $8.8 million across 5,800 campaigns. But the fact that women are increasingly feeling like they have to desperately crowdfund their maternity leave in the first place starkly highlights the injustice that women face in the workplace. It's both bleak and infuriating. Passed in 1993, the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) ensures 12 weeks of unpaid time off for full-time workers at companies with at least 50 employees. The FMLA may seem like a good thing, but it means going three months without pay. Many self-employed women—like 41-year-old Jennifer Warren Baker, who was interviewed by TODAY—aren't even covered by it. And the policy doesn't help women who just can't afford to take unpaid leave at all.

"The growing trend of crowdfunding maternity leave is a symptom of a larger problem: The United States is the only industrialized nation without a paid family leave policy in place," said Kristin Rowe-Finkbeiner, the CEO of MomsRising, a grassroots organization that advocates for polices that affect mothers.

Legislation is just starting to catch up to what is obvious to the 70 percent of mothers who work. In the absence of a federal mandate, five states, including New York and California, have taken it upon themselves to pass paid leave policies. Some companies—those that recognize that a workplace without paid leave is a fundamentally sexist one—have also started to offer the benefit to their employees. However, employer-based family leave covers only 13 percent of Americans. In other words, if you work for Kickstarter, where they offer 16 weeks of paid time off for new mothers, you can at least avoid the cruel irony of crowdfunding your own maternity leave. GoFundMe also provides their employees with 12 weeks of paid maternity leave and four weeks of paid paternity leave, Little said.

"Offering competitive maternity and paternity leave is incredibly important to us at GoFundMe. Welcoming a child into the world is a truly wonderful event, and we are committed to giving our employees the opportunity to bond with their children during such a special time," the CEO of the company, Rob Solomon, added in a statement to Broadly via email.

But for the rest of America's workforce, paid leave isn't even a reality. "You shouldn't have to win the boss lottery in order to have paid family leave after a new baby arrives," Rowe-Finkbeiner said. "Momentum is growing for a national paid family leave policy that covers everyone. We're seeing states and cities pass this policy. It's no longer a question of if, but when, we'll have a national policy. The polling is sky high with Republicans and Democrats alike. We know—from states that have already enacted the policy—that when paid family leave is in place, businesses, the economy, and families thrive."