Is Family Really First? US Lags Behind Other Nations in Providing Paid Parental Leave
The US lags far behind other nations in guaranteeing paid leave for new mothers and fathers according to Failing its Families, a new study by Janet Walsh, deputy director of the women’s rights division of Human Rights Watch.
How far behind?
At least 178 countries have laws ensuring that women who have just given birth have maternity leave. The US—and Papua New Guinea and Swaziland—does not. Also, more than 50 nations provide paid leave for new fathers but, again, the US is not among them. In contrast, new parents in Malta are eligible for 14 weeks of paid leave while those in Sweden can have up to 16 months, with two months reserved for new father.
While there have been legislative efforts in the US to provide for paid parental leave following the birth of a child, there have not gone far: Lobbyists for businesses have said—without regard for the stress and challenges a baby can have on new parents anxious to keep their jobs—that such laws would be a ‘burden’ on employees. The 1993 Family and Medical Leave Act does let workers with new children or seriously ill family members take up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave. However, it excludes companies with fewer than 50 employees, and so, as the New York Times notes, ‘covers only about half the work force, and many who are covered cannot afford to take unpaid leave.’
Says Walsh: “Despite its enthusiasm about ‘family values,’ the U.S. is decades behind other countries in ensuring the well-being of working families….Being an outlier is nothing to be proud of in a case like this.”
Indeed: As notes, there are numerous harmful consequences’ without such leave, including postpartum depression. Mothers unable to take paid leave may give up breast-feeding early. And, as Human Rights Watch says:
Many who took unpaid leave went into debt and some were forced to seek public assistance. Some women said employer bias against working mothers derailed their careers. Same-sex parents were often denied even unpaid leave.
Only California and New Jersey currently paid-leave programs. These are financed entirely through workers making small payroll tax contributions and provide six weeks of paid leave for workers ‘taking time off to bond with a new child or to care for a seriously ill child, spouse or parent.’ More details from the New York Times:
New Jersey’s program started in July 2009 and its balance as of Dec. 31 was $39 million — robust enough so the state recently reduced workers’ contribution by half. The maximum annual payment is now less than $18 instead of more than $35.
Through December, New Jersey had approved 44,972 claims — 91 percent of those filed — and paid out $105 million in benefits at an average of $471 a week.
California’s program began in 2004 and is run by the State Disability Insurance plan, which collects 1.1 percent of pay from 13 million eligible workers. In 2009-10, the state paid out $469 million for 180,675 claims, with an average weekly benefit of $488.
In New Jersey, men make up about 12 percent of the parents seeking paid leave to bond with a new child. In California, men’s share of the leave has risen from 17 percent to 26 percent since 2004.
In each state, some business leaders remain unenthusiastic, though there is no clamor to repeal the programs.
Last week we held a ‘transition meeting‘ for my autistic son Charlie: As he is turning 14 years old in May, we have to start thinking about what he will be doing work-wise and life-wise after he finishes school at the age of 21. However, his school’s transition coordinator was not at the meeting as he is on part-time paternity leave. It would have been great for him to have been at Charlie’s meeting, but I was very much cheered to know that the coordinator could take such leave: I’ll always remember how exhausting, and crazy, and precious, the first several weeks of Charlie’s infancy were. My husband Jim is a professor so his work schedule of teaching and advising has always been very flexible, a huge advantage in taking care of a new baby; as we were living in a city (St. Louis, Missouri) where we had no family, it was even more important that Jim could be home so much.
And I really think that all new parents, women and definitely men, should have access to such a necessary benefit; to such a right.
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Photo by quinn.anya.