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Commandant praised by advocates for examining longer Marine parental leave

Lance Cpl. Michael Vitacco meets his son, Aiden, 3 months, during a homecoming at the Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center, Twentynine Palms, Calif. in 2016. Marine Commandant Gen. David Berger said in July that he would ''do everything possible'' to extend Marine parental leave.

LEVI SCHULTZ/U.S. MARINE CORPS

By NANCY MONTGOMERY | STARS AND STRIPES Published: July 23, 2019

The new Marine commandant’s pledge to significantly expand parental leave has buoyed advocates for military families, who say they hope that policies allowing for more caregiving time will spread beyond the Marine Corps.

Marine Commandant Gen. David Berger said in planning guidance released earlier this month that he planned to “do everything possible to provide parents with opportunities to remain with their newborns for extended periods of time,” including considering up to a yearlong leave of absence for new mothers before returning to full duty.

“We are very excited to see the Marine commandant’s decision,” said Amy Barron Smolinski, the executive director of the advocacy group Breastfeeding in Combat Boots. “From our members and followers I can tell you there’s tremendous support. It’s saying we believe in you and your families.”

Tina Sherman, of the advocacy group momsrising.org, said that her organization was similarly optimistic.

“We’re very excited that this is being talked about,” she said. “We’re celebrating all the steps forward. In the end, families are going to be benefitting from this.”

Berger’s guidance represents the first time a service chief has expressed plans for such an expansion of time off to care for newborns.

“We should never ask our Marines to choose between being the best parent possible and the best Marine possible,” Berger’s letter said. “Our parental/maternity leave policies are inadequate and have failed to keep pace with societal norms and modern talent management practices.”

Marines, like women in the other three Pentagon services, are entitled to six weeks of convalescent leave and six weeks of “primary caregiver” leave.

The plan, which would only apply to Marines, would more than restore the 18 weeks of maternity leave sailors and Marines were granted by then-Navy Secretary Ray Mabus in 2015, a policy slashed to 12 weeks months later by then-Defense Secretary Ash Carter.

At the same time, Carter’s policy doubled the six weeks of leave provided earlier by the Army and Air Force.

Navy officials regarded the 2015 change as detrimental to families and efforts to recruit and retain women, according to reports at the time.

“So good for the commandant to say this isn’t good enough,” Mabus said Monday, according to Military.com.

The expanded maternity leave could more closely align leave policies with those of allied militaries.

Female Canadian, British and career Israeli troops, for example, get paid maternity leaves of at least 15 weeks, with up to a year of partially paid leave.

But those countries also have national health care and insurance programs that pay for maternity leave for working civilian mothers. In the U.S., there is no federally mandated parental paid leave.

In 2016, only 14% of civilian workers had access to paid parental leave through their employers, according to the National Compensation Survey, conducted by the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics.

And according to Sherman, a majority of new mothers either could not quality for the 12 weeks of unpaid time off required by the 1993 Family and Medical Leave Act, or could not afford to use it.

Decades of studies have shown that women need at least six to eight weeks to physically recover from childbirth, and that giving parents time to bond with a new baby improves health outcomes.

“We know the benefits are there,” Sherman said. “We need to get there.”

Both groups have sought changes to current parental leave policies dictated by the 2017 National Defense Authorization Act.

“In cases of stillbirth, all parental leave is rescinded, which is deeply problematic,” Barron Smolinski said.

The Marine Corps took the lead on that issue as well, she said, issuing a clarification last year ordering six weeks of convalescent leave to be authorized in those cases.

“We see this as part of a continuum,” Barron Smolinski said. “We look at this as the U.S. military is often the leader in social policy. If the Marines can make it work, then the military can make it work. If the military can make it work, maybe we can make it work for everyone.”

montgomery.nancy@stripes.com
Twitter: @montgomerynance

Marine Commandant Gen. David Berger said in planning guidance in July that he planned to ''do everything possible to provide parents with opportunities to remain with their newborns for extended periods of time,'' including considering up to a yearlong leave of absence for new mothers before returning to full duty.
RANDALL A. CLINTON/U.S. MARINE CORPS

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