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US Lags On Parental Leave Policies: Report

February 24, 2011

The United States lags the rest of the world in parental leave policy, according to a report released Wednesday by Human Rights Watch.

“Millions of U.S. workers – including parents of infants – are harmed by weak or nonexistent laws on paid leave, breastfeeding accommodation, and discrimination against workers with family responsibilities,” said Human Rights Watch in the 90-page report, entitled “Failing its Families: Lack of Paid Leave and Work-Family Supports in the U.S.”

The report is based on interviews with 64 parents across the United States.  It documents the health and financial impact on American workers of having little or no paid family leave after childbirth or adoption, employer reticence to offer breastfeeding support or flexible schedules, and workplace discrimination against new parents.

The parents queried in the study said that having little or no paid leave contributed to delaying babies’ immunizations, postpartum depression and other health problems, and had caused mothers to give up breastfeeding early.

Many who took unpaid leave went into debt, with some seeking public assistance.  Some women said that employer bias against working mothers had derailed their careers.

“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.

Research on the impact of paid maternity leave on health has found that paid and sufficiently long leaves are associated with increased breastfeeding, lower infant mortality, higher rates of immunizations and lower risk of postpartum depression.

“Around the world, policymakers understand that helping workers meet their work and family obligations is good public policy,” Walsh said.

Indeed, other nations have long recognized the need to provide better support for working families.  Of the 190 countries studied in the report, 178 guaranteed paid leave for new mothers, while nine were unclear about their maternity policies. Just three nations offer no legal guarantee of paid maternity leave — Papua New Guinea, Swaziland and the U.S.

“Being an outlier is nothing to be proud of in a case like this,” Walsh said.

“The U.S. is actually missing out by failing to ensure that all workers have access to paid family leave,” she said.

Of the 178 nations that guarantee paid leave for new mothers, more than 50 extend paid leave to new fathers. More than 100 offer 14 or more weeks of paid leave for new mothers, including Australia, Canada, and the United Kingdom.   The 34 members of the Organization for Economic Co-Operation and Development (OECD) provide on average 18 weeks of paid maternity leave, with an average of 13 weeks at full pay, Human Rights Watch said.

“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,” Human Rights watch said.

The federal Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) allows U.S. workers with new children or family members with serious medical conditions to take unpaid job-protected leave, but it covers only about half the workforce.

Indeed, just 11 percent of civilian workers (and 3 percent of the lowest-income workers) have paid family leave benefits, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.  

California and New Jersey are the only two states with public paid family leave insurance programs, both of which are financed exclusively through small employee payroll tax contributions.

“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. It’s past time for the US to get on board with this trend.”

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