The U.S. is all about being a “global leader” – whether it’s in terms of military power, or math and science scholarship, or space exploration, or countless other pursuits we pride ourselves in. We panic about the nation’s decline whenever a new study shows that we’ve fallen slightly in our global ranking on, say, science and technology proficiency.
But one area where we aren’t a leader – or even a distant follower – is in providing paid leave for new mothers (let alone fathers). According to information compiled by the United Nations, our parental leave policies rank us dead last out of 185 countries studied. Out of all 185 countries, only two – Papua New Guinea and, you guessed it, the U.S. – do not provide or require any paid maternity leave. Under federal law, the FMLA requires larger employers to provide some employees with up to 12 weeks of unpaid maternity leave, but nothing requires that the time off be compensated. And many employers choose not to pay – 9 out of 10 US workers have no paid family leave.
While we leave working mothers to fend for themselves, other countries have adopted increasingly progressive leave policies. The UN’s Internal Labor Organization recommends at least 14 weeks of maternity leave on at least two-thirds pay. And many countries meet or surpass that standard: Pakistan offers 12 weeks of paid leave, Germany 14, France 16, Venezuela 18, Italy 22, and Canada just over the Maine border 50. Denmark has gone even further to encourage parenthood – last year, nurseries offered two hours of free childcare on Thursday evenings to encourage parents to make a date night of it and have more babies.
We might not be quite ready for that, but we need to recognize that our current leave policies are embarrassing, anti-family, and anti-progress. Paid maternity leave benefits everyone. In states that do provide some paid leave, such as California, it has lengthened the amount of leave time that mothers and fathers spend with their new babies, increased the rate at which mothers return to work within a year and the hours that returning mothers work, reduced worker turnover, and raised aggregate employment and wage rates. Requiring paid leave particularly benefits struggling low-income and part-time workers, as they are often most in need of paid leave but are least likely to have it. And California’s paid leave is financed by a payroll tax, so the cost of leave is not borne directly by employers.
So far, only three states (and Maine is not one of them) provide any paid parental leave. But last month, a new bill was introduced in Congress that would implement a national paid leave program. The Family and Medical Insurance Leave Act would create a public insurance plan, financed by payroll contributions, that would provide up to 12 weeks of paid family leave for all employees. The federal system, similar to Social Security, would provide a crucial safety net for working parents.
Every other industrialized country has decided that working parents should not be forced to choose between work and family. Isn’t it time we joined them—and left Papua New Guinea behind?
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