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When it comes to paid maternity leave, we’re still far behind

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I wrote about this issue in 2008, when the New Jersey State Senate approved legislation that would grant employees paid maternity or dependent-care leave. Since then, not only has the situation not gotten better, it’s actually gotten worse: In a 2005 survey of 168 developed countries, the United States was one of just five that didn’t mandate paid maternity leave. Yesterday, a Human Rights Watch report; showed that, out of 190 countries studied, just three offered no legal guarantee of paid maternity leave: Papua New Guinea, Swaziland, and the United States. 

“Being an outlier is nothing to be proud of in a case like this,” Janet Walsh, deputy women’s rights director of Human Rights Watch and the author of the report, told Reuters. “Countries that have these programs show productivity gains, reduced turnover costs, and health care savings. We can’t afford not to guarantee paid family leave under law — especially in these tough economic times.”

According to the report, “Failing its families: Lack of Paid Leave and Work-Family Supports in the US,” of he 190 countries studied, 178 have national laws that guarantee paid leave for new mothers, and more than 50 also guarantee paid leave for new fathers. Nine countries were unclear on their parental leave policies, but more than 100 countries offer 14 or more weeks of paid leave for new mothers, the members of the Organization for Economic Co-Operation — which includes Bangladesh, Australia, China, Russia and 30 other countries, but not the United States — provide on average of 18 weeks of paid maternity leave (an average of 13 weeks at full pay), with additional paid parental leave available.

And maternity leave isn’t the only place where we fall behind. According to the report, U.S. companies also lack accommodations for breast-feeding mothers, though there’s hope that’s about to change: The new health care law requires employers to provide reasonable breaks and accommodations for breastfeeding mothers who need to pump at work, and Surgeon General Regina M. Benjamin in January released a call to action to support breastfeeding.”

We’re ahead of the curve in one big thing, but it’s not a good one: workplace discrimination against new parents is worse in the U.S. than in other countries, the report found. Women experience the so-called Motherhood penalty, in which working moms get less pay and less respect in the office, and working dads are struggling to “legitimize being a family-focused worker,” a Boston College study showed.

The report backs up their assertions with interviews from 64 U.S. families, and some of their profiles are just heartbreaking: A college professor who was told having children had prevented her from gaining tenure, a woman who worked in a vet’s office whose manager cut her hours and pay when she tried to discuss maternity leave, a bank employee who worked 38 hours a week — just short of full-time — and was given the teller station closest to the bathroom “so that she could take two steps to throw up, freshen up, and come back out.”

Though the federal Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) allows employees with newborns to take up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave without jeopardizing their jobs, only about half of U.S. workers are covered under it. The Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that only 11 percent of American employees have the option of taking paid medical leave, which is offered by some employers but is not required by the government.

Working moms, what do you think? Is paid parental leave a perk, or a requirement?

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8 comments so far...

  • Parental leave is something you negotiate. You bring more to the table so you can demand it, if it is important to you. In the USA most of us have that right.

    When you can show me that women have more opportunities at high corporate levels in those “better” countries, I might entertain this complaint. Fact is, when you mandate a significant cost to hiring or promoting women of child-bearing age, you make ALL of them less desireable employees / managers - whether or not we even want extended / paid maternity leave.

    I prefer a system where if you want a paid maternity leave, you can find a job that provides that; and if you want to go stay on the fast track, no government regulation is working against you. And, current unusual economy aside, both options are normally available in the US to women who take careers seriously. Can’t really feel sorry for people who treated their education and early work experience as if it did not matter in the long run.

    So like several other areas where some people consider the US to be “behind,” I think we have it right on this one. Of course things are not perfect here or anywhere, but we have more choices and chances, and I value that more than “free money” (i.e., tax me now, give me a pittance back later).

    SKL  |  February 24th, 2011 at 4:05 pm

  • Those are good and interesting points, SKL. But what about the millions of women who aren’t working in a corporate setting? Click on the link to read some of the profiles in the report, but I’m talking about bank tellers and college professors (without tenure). There aren’t any jobs in their fields that provide paid leave, and yet they don’t have an opportunity to be on a fast track to anything. What are they supposed to bring to the table when their employer’s policy is an across-the-board “no”? And, if they did manage to leave their jobs and qualify for employment in other fields, what about the people who replace them? Does that mean that the “choices and chances” enjoyed by more privileged women are supported by the lack of choice or chance for others?

    Lylah  |  February 24th, 2011 at 4:18 pm

  • Lylah, there are many people who decide early in life that they are not going to go the extra mile to have more choices open to them. That, too, is a choice. There are still options for them - financial planning to enable them to be SAHMs, engaging help from relatives or relatively low-cost child care, switching to more mom-friendly careers, or working to qualify for another job that has a better maternity leave policy.

    I don’t think we’re going to end up agreeing on this matter, and that’s OK. I just feel that when you tax some people to pay for the choices of others, you necessarily limit the options open to the people who work the hardest. And I don’t believe that’s right. Now if you ask me about helping the disabled, elderly, mentally ill, or giving charity for many causes, you will find me to be as compassionate as the next person. But I don’t believe in being taxed on account of someone else’s choices. I’m sorry. And if we could get the “I’m entitled” attitude out of the minds of young people, maybe they would all try a little harder to keep their own options open.

    SKL  |  February 24th, 2011 at 5:03 pm

  • Again, good points, SKL (and I appreciate your comments in discussions like this).

    In NJ, leave is paid for via payroll deduction, and it’s used for general dependent-care leave (so an employee can take care of an elderly parent, for example), so it’s open to everyone, not just parents. What do you think of an option like that, where everyone in a company pays for the perk?

    Lylah  |  February 24th, 2011 at 5:13 pm

  • Lylah, I think it should not be mandated by the government. I’m not saying it would be wrong for employees and employers to agree to such a benefit.

    Where I worked for a while, there was a leave bank which allowed people to donate unused leave to people who were in a crisis. Something along this line makes sense to me. But again, not via tax or government regulation.

    Where I work now, which is a very small business, I can adjust my schedule around my needs for the most part, because most of my work can be done at home or anyplace where I can bring a computer. Again, no government involvement (and I willingly took a big pay cut to get this flexibility, and no, I don’t resent that).

    But the thing is, what works for every individual and every company is going to be different. And each of us needs to be accountable to find the right solution for us (including planning ahead).

    SKL  |  February 24th, 2011 at 5:38 pm

  • In Canada, all employees (not including self-employed, though they can opt in) have Employment Insurance deducted from their paychecks. It’s required by law.

    If you are laid off, or put on medical leave, or have a baby, etc., you apply for EI and receive a percentage of your former salary (up to a max). Everybody pays in, and everybody is eligible to use it in a variety of circumstances.

    Employers CAN top it up if they want, but usually only government agencies do so. They only thing employers are required by law to do when you are pregnant is give you the time off (to a max of 50 weeks)(and 35 of those weeks the father can take instead of the mother if they choose) and give you your job back when you return.

    It’s a pretty decent system. :)

    Angella  |  February 24th, 2011 at 6:06 pm

  • “if we could get the “I’m entitled” attitude out of the minds of young people, maybe they would all try a little harder to keep their own options open”

    I can’t believe someone thinks this is the problem at the core of maternity leave debate.

    I don’t want paid leave, but I’d love a longer unpaid leave with job protection.

    lindsay  |  February 25th, 2011 at 1:34 am

  • A few things I find interesting. One is that even though we are behind in parent leave, it does not seem to have affected the number of children being born. Perhaps this is just my area.
    The other thing is that FMLA is only offered typically after one has been employed at one place of employment for at least a year.
    I work contract or as needed work so I travel a lot for work. I have had a hard time getting maternity insurance and pay a quite a bit for it now that I have it. Would be very nice to have the opportunity to receive paid maternity leave. Then again as one person said, if I wanted it I should work a job that offers it. Problem is that few employers offer it and I am in the healthcare field! Most people I know just use short-term disability for their maternity leave or use government assistance programs (which is topic for another discussion).

    Amanda  |  March 5th, 2011 at 7:19 am