Families struggling with unpaid maternity leave turn to GoFundMe pages for financial support
These moms had to crowdfund their maternity leave.
Using the public fundraising platform GoFundMe felt like the only option for these families, who couldn’t afford to spend time with their newborns any other way.
Camille Walkin, 38, a mother from West Fargo, North Dakota, was laid off from her job six months into her pregnancy with her baby boy. Though she was able to quickly secure another job as an accountant’s assistant, she was only able to put in several weeks before having her baby. According to Walkin, it takes 30 days to qualify for short-term disability — which would have paid a portion of her salary while she was home with her newborn — but she was in labor by then so she missed the mark by just a few days.
“If I had an established employer it would have been a different story,” Walkin tells Moneyish. “It was bad timing, but I’m a figure-it-out kind of person. We figured it out, and I was able to take almost seven weeks off.”
Only 12% of employees in the U.S. have paid maternity leave, according to the United States Department of Labor — which forces most women to choose between bonding with their baby and making a living. Since most American women don’t even get paid during their maternity leave, they instead rely on the Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993, or FMLA, a law that protects their job for up to 12 weeks after childbirth or adoption, enabling a woman to take unpaid leave. Only four U.S. states have legislation mandating paid family leave: California, New York, New Jersey and Rhode Island, all others are not legally obligated to do more than the standard FMLA unpaid leave requirement. For context, out of 185 countries, the U.S. and Papua New Guinea are the only two that do not provide paid maternity benefits, according to the International Labor Organization.
Walkin’s husband, an hourly employee at Costco, also does not qualify for paid family leave and the family relies heavily on her $50,000-a-year salary to pay the bills. Without the paycheck coming in, the duo decided to set up a GoFundMe page, explaining their situation. Because Walkin is the primary breadwinner in the family, she couldn’t afford to go on maternity leave for any of her previous pregnancies, and the separation anxiety took a mental toll. Walkin suffered from postpartum depression during her last pregnancy, and says she needed to be home for her baby this time around.
“I was in tears and had lost a lot of weight so the doctor prescribed me anti-anxiety medication,” Walkin, a mother of six, recalls. “I didn’t want to miss out on this precious time with another one of my children.”
Her story was met with support from friends, family and strangers. She received donations ranging from $10 to $745 contributions at a time.
If Walkin had been eligible for short-term disability at her company, she would have received $500 per week, for eight weeks, or $4,000 in total, much more than $1,860 she was able to raise on the crowdfunding platform, and less than her initial goal of $3,500. Still, the GoFundMe money, along with a loan, is helping her family get by.
“Every time we get a notification that someone donated it’s just a little less stress on us,” says Walkin. “Other countries have such great programs for women, it makes my heart hurt that we have to struggle so much in this country, and you never hear about it.”
Walkin joins thousands of moms who are using the site GoFundMe as a last resort to raise millions of dollars for parental leave. Approximately 273,000 women in the U.S. took maternity leave on average every month between 1994 and 2015, and researchers note that fewer than half of those women were paid during it, according to a report published in the American Journal of Public Health.
That’s forcing many women out of their careers. Research has shown that women who don’t receive paid maternity leave are more likely to leave a job. Around 43% of women with children leave work voluntarily at some point in their careers. And 61% of women said family responsibilities were why they weren’t working, compared to just 37% of men, according to a 2014 New York Times/CBS/Kaiser Family Foundation poll. Bigger companies including Starbucks, Walmart, Netflix and IBM have announced paid family leave policies in recent years to promote proper work-life balance; however the percentage of companies that offer paid maternity leave is still staggeringly low at around 21%, according to an Society For Human Resource Mangement survey.
Even women in the the U.S. senate are struggling. Sen. Tammy Duckworth, the first sitting senator to have a baby in office when she welcomes a baby girl in April, said she can’t “technically” take maternity leave to care for her baby daughter. “If I take maternity leave, then I won’t be allowed to sponsor legislation or vote during that time period,” she told Politico.
Tristan Reilly, 31, a special education teacher from Cape Cod, Mass., planned to use her sick days and an additional eight weeks of unpaid maternity leave. But when she was hospitalized before giving birth, she used up all of 15 sick days she earned and was forced to go on an unpaid maternity leave.
“The maternity leave process is frustrating at best,” Reilly says. “And in order to continue with health insurance you have to pay for it out of pocket or work part time.”
Without any extra income she too decided to start a GoFundMe page with an initial goal of $8,000.
Before she decided to have a child, a baby boy named James who was born in December, Reilly and her husband grappled with the financial obligations coupled with unpaid maternity leave. New parents spend on average about $70 per month on baby clothes and diapers and a little over $120 a month on baby food and formula, according to the US Department of Agriculture.
“We had discussed ‘what do we if this does happen? Should we wait to have kids? We said ‘no we can’t put this on hold because our country is not family friendly. Don’t wait on what you want for life.”
The duo made it work by setting a strict budget and their GoFundMe campaign raised $4,825, a little more than half of their goal. The site is still up and accepting donations.
With Kyle Miller
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