The U.S. is a world leader when it comes to human rights and prides itself on providing a high standard of living for its residents. There’s one area of life, however, in which the country lags behind almost the entire developed world: paid parental leave. While maternity and paternity leave are provided through the Family and Medical Leave Act, paid leave – during which new parents continue to earn wages while caring for their newborn child – is nonexistent.
That puts the United States in with a small number of countries. Lesotho, Swaziland and Papua New Guinea are the only other countries that fail to provide paid leave for new parents.
The world’s other nations all offer some form of paid leave for new mothers and, often, fathers. Many countries, including Canada, Norway and the UK, provide time that can be shared between parents, allowing one to take time off while the other returns to work. And still, the U.S. has no laws requiring paid leave. Certain companies may choose to provide it, and unpaid leave is offered, but would the U.S. benefit from paid maternity and paternity leave?
Certain states – namely California, New Jersey, and Washington – require businesses to offer paid maternity leave. Additionally, some states recognize pregnancy as a temporary disability that qualifies for disability insurance benefits. Under the 1978 Pregnancy Discrimination Act, businesses are required to provide reasonable accommodation for pregnant employees (this may include modifying jobs tasks or equipment.) The Act also makes it illegal to fire a pregnant worker simply for taking leave and protects workers’ benefits (such as health insurance, wage increases and the accrual of paid time off) for the length of the maternity leave. The Act applies to companies with fifteen employees or more.
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The Center for American Progress, a progressive think-tank, has touched on the benefits of paid parental leave, the financial relief it provides to families at a traditionally difficult time, and the impact paid leave has on spending. The fact that many women earn as much or more than their partners also makes the lack of paid maternity leave antiquated, as unpaid time off can cut a family’s income in half. In fact, a survey by the Families and Work Institute found that in families where both partners work, women’s earnings accounted for 44 percent of the total household income.
There are also arguments that unpaid maternity leave only helps to support gender pay gaps. Women who cannot earn wages while on maternity leave have been shown to earn less over a longer period of time, putting them at a disadvantage in the workplace. A June 2013 CNN report, meanwhile, highlighted the important role fathers can play in a child’s early years and the benefits of having both partners at home following childbirth or adoption.
It’s worth mentioning that federal employees are entitled to four weeks paid paternal leave following the birth or adoption of a child, under legislation introduced in February 2013. The United States Office of Personnel Management house report to Congress on paid parental leave argued that providing paid time off for federal employees would:
(1) curtail the rate at which federal employees are being lost to the private sector;
(2) help the government in its recruitment and retention efforts generally;
(3) reduce turnover and replacement costs; and
(4) contribute to parental involvement during a child’s formative years.
The question remains, then – if the federal government provides paid leave for its own employees, and states are increasingly legislating in favor of mandatory paid leave, when will nationwide paid parental leave become a reality? The OPM house report also notes that “maternity leave mandates were first enacted in Europe nearly a century ago,” while offering paid parental leave is a requirement for entry into the European Union.
The United States is currently far behind the rest of the world when it comes to paid parental leave, and many are now arguing that it would be in the country’s best interest to redress the balance. How likely is this? That remain unclear; however, the current trend seems to suggest that paid parental leave may one day become a reality.
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