POSTED BY REGINA CANTU
A new report released today by Human Rights Watch, “Failing its Families: Lack of Paid Leave and Work-Family Supports in the US,” reveals the health and financial outcomes for American workers who have little or no paid family leave after childbirth. The report also documents workplace discrimination against new parents, especially mothers.
Human Rights Watch reports that at least 178 countries have laws to guarantee paid leave for new mothers, and more than 50 also guarantee paid leave for new fathers. With its lack of a nationwide policy governing maternity leave, the United States has been criticized for what is consideredan embarrassment and a failure to ensure the well-being of working families.
Under the current system, new mothers’ careers are put on hold indefinitely if they lose their job. But if mom doesn’t go back to work, a number of families are forced to seek public assistance or go into debt. Worse yet, infants also bear the brunt of this policy when a mother returns to work early: She might see less of her baby, quit breastfeeding and delay her baby’s vaccinations, to name just a few outcomes.
“We can’t afford not to guarantee paid family leave under law – especially in these tough economic times,” said Janet Walsh, Deputy Women’s Rights Director at Human Rights Watch and author of the report. “The US is actually missing out by failing to ensure that all workers have access to paid family leave. Countries that have these programs show productivity gains, reduced turnover costs, and health care savings.”
Unfortunately, previous efforts in Congress to enact a paid family-leave law have failed, mostly as a result of business lobbyists who say it would be a burden on employers.
Instead, the 1993 Family and Medical Leave Act enables workers with new children or seriously ill family members to take up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave. The Act further excludes companies with fewer than 50 employees, thus covering only about half the work force while cannot afford to take unpaid leave.
“Leaving paid leave to the whim of employers means millions of workers are left out, especially low-income workers who may need it most,” said Walsh, citing federal estimates that only 10 percent of private-sector workers have paid family leave benefits.
Still, against the backdrop of the rest of the developed (and developing!) economies throughout the world, American women’s maternity leave looks like punishment. France, Singapore and Austria all offer four months’ paid maternity leave benefits, and Germany offers 14 weeks. In the U.K., a woman receives 90% of her salary for up to a year off with her baby. Swedish mothers hit the jackpot with 480 days off at 80% of their salary, followed by their counterparts in Serbia and Denmark with a full year off at full pay. Even in Gambia, Somalia and Vietnam new mothers receive at least three months’ paid maternity leave.The U.S. and Australia are the only developed economies in the world that provide no paid maternity leave.
“Around the world, policymakers understand that helping workers meet their work and family obligations is good public policy,” Walsh said. “It’s good for business, for the economy, for public health, and for families.”
With all its support for so-called “family values,” it’s pretty obvious the US needs to step up and adopt a paid-leave program.