WNBA Players Just Got Better Maternity Benefits Than Most Women in America
Other sports — and pretty much every industry — should take note.
After months of negotiation, the WNBA announced its new collective bargaining agreement this week. It offers major improvements for the players, who have dealt with low salaries requiring them to play overseas in the offseason and miserable travel arrangements that often left them stranded in airports. The new CBA addresses many of those issues, but it also comes with other, in some ways more important, benefits.
The WNBA is offering comprehensive family planning support that includes fully paid maternity leave (it was half on the previous CBA), reimbursement for fertility support and adoption fees, a $5,000 childcare stipend, two bedroom apartments for players with kids, and mental health services tailored to working moms. The full CBA has yet to be released, so we won’t know the nitty gritty details until it is. But these are groundbreaking, and not just for female athletes but for women in any field. “We've always been a progressive league. We've always kind of been in the forefront of the social impact and reaching out to the community,” said Nneka Ogwumike, Women’s National Basketball Players Association’s (WNBPA) President and LA Sparks forward, on a press call on Monday. “But we really hope that we can set a precedent for women in the workplace, women in sports. We're really happy to be able to be in front of that.”
Returning to the sport after having a child is often considered the hardest and most underappreciated comeback in the game. One of the most high profile examples is that of Serena Williams, who won the ASB Classic in Auckland, New Zealand earlier this month, her first since having her daughter, Olympia, over two years ago. She has spoken publicly about the challenges of coming back to the sport, and the life-threatening postpartum complications she experienced. Nike recently changed its maternity leave policy after athletes spoke to The New York Times about the financial penalties they suffered, including losing out on sponsorship money after giving birth.
WNBA players have struggled, as well. Under their previous contract, players were only guaranteed half their salary while on maternity leave. Considering their pay was already paltry — according to reporting by Matt Ellentuck of SBNation, the minimum salary for players with up to two years of experience was $41,965 in 2019, while the league maximum was $117,500 — this would have been a huge blow. (Meanwhile over in the NBA, men receive a minimum salary of $898,310 in their first year, while the maximum can be as high as $38 million.) WNBA Commissioner Cathy Engelbert said that some teams “stepped up” and paid players their full salary during leave, “but it wasn’t contractual or required.” Dallas Wings guard Skylar Diggins-Smith spoke after last season about playing most of the 2018 season pregnant, later struggling with postpartum depression, and how much she suffered due to what she felt was inadequate support from the organization. “I took two FULL months away from everything because of postpartum depression,” she tweeted. “With limited resources to help me be successful mentally/physically.”
WNBA All-Star and vertan Sparks guard Candace Parker shared her experience as a mother this week on NBA TV. Parker had her now-10-year-old daughter on May 13 and was back on the court July 5, and then headed out on an East Coast trip. Her daughter was six weeks old. “I had to take my mom with me because I nursed the first 15 months, but it was out of pocket, I had to pay for my own hotel room,” Parker says. But with this new CBA and the addition of paid leave, “those things are slowly getting better for mothers.”
Research shows that access to mental health services and paid time off after having a child both contribute to better physical and mental health outcomes for moms, and that Black moms, in particular, are less likely to receive the care they need. The new CBA addresses matters like maternal mental health and pregnancy care head-on. Ogwumike specifically cited how important mental health care is for players and all working moms. For her part, Diggins-Smith called the new CBA “a huge win for everyone” in a statement to The Athletic, adding that she felt “all of our voices and diverse opinions were heard and respected.”
With this new CBA, the WNBA has taken major steps forward to become leaders not just in the sports world, but for working moms in every field. There is no law requiring employers to offer paid leave, nor do we have universal childcare. Women in sports aren’t generally any better off than women in any office or service position across the country, though there has been recent progress. The Ladies Professional Golf Association (LPGA) revamped its maternity leave policy last year, no longer penalizing women who take time off to have a baby. Similarly, the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) changed its policy after Williams’ return. The National Women’s Soccer League doesn’t currently have a formal maternity leave policy and players aren’t guaranteed their salary while pregnant, though the NWSL Players Association told Oregon Live that the issue would be a component of any future CBA; the U.S. Women’s National Team, by contrast, has a CBA with U.S. Soccer that stipulates that pregnant players will receive 50% of their salary while on leave (that amount has increased under the new CBA).
But no league has anything nearly as comprehensive as what the WNBA is offering. These policies represent a continuation of the work Commissioner Engelbert did in her previous role as a CEO at Deloitte, where she fought to make the workplace more equitable for her female employees. The benefits include reimbursement up to $60,000 for veteran players for costs directly related to adoption, surrogacy, and egg freezing or fertility treatment. Having insurance cover egg freezing is nearly unheard of, and it’s important especially for athletes who are committing their body to their career during their healthiest years for pregnancy and childbirth.
The Seattle Storm’s Sue Bird and Breanna Stewart chose to talk publicly last month about their decision to freeze their eggs, so that athletes and other career-driven women knew there were options for them. But at the time they underwent the procedure, it wasn’t covered by the league’s health plan. “My choice was a personal one made to keep my options open while I focused on my playing career, but it’s one that I hope one day will be available to every woman who is interested,” Stewart told InStyle in an emailed statement. “I’m proud to be a part of a league that recognized the importance of the resource to us not just as players, but as people.”
Of course, many women seek fertility treatment and many pursue alternate routes for establishing family. But in a league like the WNBA, which has a high number of queer players, these benefits are even more important, guaranteeing that they have the ability to seek out whatever kind of family planning they would like. “It’s so important that these benefits cover the needs of queer working women,” Layshia Clarendon, point guard for the Connecticut Sun and First Vice President of the WNBPA, told InStyle via email. “Often, our means of building a family include methods like IVF, IUI, or adoption, many of which aren’t covered under typical health insurance policies. The fact that we built a benefits package that includes a reimbursement plan is phenomenal and can positively affect the lives of LGBTQ and straight women alike.” She added that that the needs of queer women were also taken into considersation when drafting the new domestic violence policy within the CBA, the details of which have not yet been released (we know that it will include counseling and educational offerings).
Whether the maternity leave, which Engelbert said was “as long as a player needs,” extends to a non-gestational parent, is still unclear, as the full CBA has yet to be released. However, Clarendon, who married Jessica Dolan in 2017, says that “as the parent who will probably not carry a child within my playing career, I believe teams and the league will eventually work with me and my family to help me take time off when needed and return to play as I see fit.”