U.S. lags world, fails women with lack of paid leave

This month marks the 20th anniversary of the U.S. Family and Medical Leave Act. The 1993 act is a federal law requiring employers to provide employees 12 weeks of unpaid leave for qualified medical and family reasons, including pregnancy. On this anniversary, we should reflect on how the U.S. is unacceptably lagging behind on parental leave and on what we should do to overcome this gap.

Researchers at McGill University's Institute for Health and Social Policy compared policies across the globe and found that among the 173 countries studied, five did not offer any paid parental leave. The United States shares this dubious distinction with Lesotho, Liberia, Swaziland and Papua New Guinea. The Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development reports that, on average, paid maternity leave is about 19 weeks across the 34 OECD member countries. The United States is the only country in the OECD failing families, as it does not require any paid leave.

The Family and Medical Leave Act excludes employees working for a company of fewer than 50 workers; this is approximately 42 percent of employees. Women working for these companies do not receive even unpaid maternity leave, and their jobs are not guaranteed upon their return. As a result, America's competitiveness in terms of promoting healthy families and opportunities for women to successfully combine work and family is falling far behind many other countries. This is embarrassing for a nation priding itself on its family values.

In addition to the emotional and economic stress associated with an early return to work after childbirth, unpaid parental leave can adversely affect a child's development and growth. For example, the World Health Organization recommends that infants be exclusively breastfeed until 6 months, which can be difficult for a mother who is working. Breastfeeding protects infants from childhood illnesses such as diarrhea, respiratory infections and ear infections, as well as promoting healthy cognitive development. Studies also found long-term benefits from breastfeeding such as a reduction of children's obesity and asthma. According to the American Institute for Cancer Research, breastfeeding also benefits mothers by reducing the risks of breast and ovarian cancer.

Lack of paid maternal leave is a major barrier to breastfeeding. In the U.S., only 13 percent of women breastfeed up to six months, compared to 26 percent in Canada, which has comprehensive maternity leave. Women wishing to continue breastfeeding upon their return to work also face many hurdles.

Unpaid leave is a "benefit" that few families can access because of financial constraints. After giving birth, the majority of women find themselves scrambling to make arrangements for child care while planning a quick return to work. These circumstances aggravate economic inequality, as families with financial means generally have more flexibility in postponing their return to work, have more time to dedicate to their infants, and can afford quality child care. In the U.S., too many families — and especially single mothers — are trapped in a system that offers little protection and flexibility to care for their newborns.

Some will argue that the United States can't afford paid maternal leave. But competitive economies such as Germany, Canada, Finland and Great Britain have all demonstrated that it is possible and feasible to offer these programs for families. Critics may claim that employers cannot afford an additional financial burden, especially following the recent adoption of the health care reform. Some states, such as California and New Jersey, have addressed this concern and demonstrated leadership in tackling the financial sustainability of paid parental leave. In California, the legislation for paid family leave offers employees a maximum of six weeks of partial pay to care for a newborn. Under the State Disability Insurance program, the benefits are covered through payroll taxes.

In discussing costs, we must remember that there is also a cost associated with not providing paid maternity leave. For example, the cost of daycare might overshadow the mother's salary, potentially leading a woman to leave her employment. Families may then have to seek governmental aid to help them recover from the loss of income. For companies, there are also economic burdens associated with failure to provide paid maternal leave, as it may affect staff retention and lead to lower productivity.

The United States neglects to offer basic working conditions to enable people to fulfill their dual roles as parents and workers. Ensuring that all workers, regardless of workplace size, have access to paid parental leave is fundamental for the advancement of society. States such as California and New Jersey can act as models for others to develop their plans for parental paid leave, but eventually this deficiency will have to be addressed on the federal level.

Mothers, fathers and children need conditions in which they can thrive, and paid parental leave is a pivotal step to reach this goal.

Marie-Claude Lavoie is a doctoral student in epidemiology in the department of public health and epidemiology at the University of Maryland School of Medicine. Her email is mclavoie@umaryland.edu.

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