The United States is one of only three nations, and the only first-world country, that does not mandate paid maternity leave. Papua New Guinea and Swaziland are the others. In short, new mothers come up short in that they must often choose between keeping their jobs or having babies. How embarrassingly far behind are we? Consider this: 178 other nations around the world offer paid leave for new mothers.

“The U.S. is the only high-income nation not to have paid maternity leave, while almost all middle and low-income countries offer it, too," says Jody Heymann, founding director of McGill University's Institute for Health and Social Policy and author of “Raising the Global Floor: Dismantling the Myth That We Can't Afford Good Working Conditions for Everyone."

As advanced as our nation is economically and technologically, it remains far behind the times when it comes to supporting families after the birth of a child. Numerous studies show that early bonding with parents sets children up for long-term health and well-being. “All aspects of adult human capital, from workforce skills to cooperative and lawful behavior, build on capacities that are developed during childhood, beginning at birth," according to a 2007 report from the National Scientific Council Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University.

Yet only about half of all first-time mothers in the U.S. are able to take any paid leave after childbirth; and just a fifth of working women, with young children, receive leave with full pay, according to a review of the most recent Census data by the Washington, DC-based advocacy group National Partnership for Women & Families. And it's only getting worse.

The Case for Paid Leave

Back in 1993, when the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) was enacted, it was intended as the entry point for parental leave, and not the sum total of our country's efforts. It mandates (FMLA) 12 weeks of job-guaranteed leave for caregivers. That's great if you can actually get it, but many parents cannot because it's unpaid. Furthermore, small companies are exempt, and employees who are in a company for less than a year or work less than 24 hours per week are also out in the cold.

There is also some evidence that parents, both mothers and fathers, benefit from being able to take leave. Mothers who were employed prior to child birth and who delay returning to work after giving birth experience fewer depressive symptoms than those who return to work earlier. Fathers who take longer leaves after a child's birth are more involved in childrearing activities once they return to work. These benefits for parents also contribute to improved child well-being.

In addition, family leave policies have a number of consequences for parental employment, mainly for women. Access to leave, even unpaid leave, increases the likelihood of women's return to work following child birth; it also increases the likelihood of women returning to the same job. Rights to parental leave increased women's rate of employment in Europe. State and federal leave policies, even unpaid leave policies, increase the likelihood of leave-taking as well as the length of leave taken for mothers and fathers. Since family leave policies increase parents' ability to maintain attachment to the labor force, even after they have children, these policies are a crucial way of promoting family economic security.

The Federal Family and Medical Leave Act

The FMLA, signed into law in 1993, provides up to 12 weeks a year of unpaid leave from employment to certain workers for major life events. It was the first piece of federal legislation to address the competing demands of work and family. Under FMLA, covered and eligible workers are guaranteed 12 weeks of leave annually in the event of the worker's own serious illness, or to care for a seriously ill parent, child, or spouse, or for the birth of a baby, or adoption or foster placement of a child.

A key provision of FMLA is that the leave is job-protected, which means that workers who take leave are entitled to the same position, or one that has equivalent pay and seniority, upon return from leave. Employers are required to extend health insurance to workers who take leave, if such benefits are ordinarily offered by the employer.

Much more is needed

Although FMLA represents a significant policy achievement for working families, it has two notable weaknesses: it does not cover all workers, and the leave offered is unpaid. These weaknesses disproportionately affect low-income parents. FMLA does not apply to small businesses, only employers with 50 or more employees have to comply with it. It also excludes some part-time workers and those with less stable employment histories. To be eligible for leave under FMLA, an employee has to have worked for the same employer for at least one year and must have worked for the same employer for at least 1,250 hours in the previous 12 months (25 hours per week, on average, for 50 weeks).

Workers who are least likely to have access to voluntary leave benefits, through an employer, are also less likely to be covered by FMLA. It is estimated that only half of all workers are both covered (that is, work for an employer with 50 or more employees) and eligible (that is, have been with their employer for the previous year and worked at least 1,250 hours) for FMLA.

Less than half (46 percent) of all women workers are estimated to be covered, and some estimates show that only 20 percent of new mothers are covered and eligible for FMLA.

Yet even workers who are fortunate enough to qualify for FMLA often cannot afford to take leave without pay. One analysis found that 77 percent of employees who needed leave but decided not take it made that decision for "financial reasons," and 88 percent of this group said that they would have taken leave had some wage replacement been available. Salaried workers and those with higher incomes are more likely to take family leave compared to hourly workers.

Low-income workers are more likely to work for employers who do not provide pay during leave: one survey found that 74 percent of workers earning less than $20,000 annually received no pay from their employer while on leave, whereas 24 percent of workers earning between $50,000 and $75,000 received no pay during leave.

India gets it

India's new maternity leave policy puts the U.S. to shame. In India, only 27 percent of women work, and that shortage costs the country approximately 2.5 percentage points of gross domestic product per year. In early March 2017, they made a bold attempt to address the problem by doubling its federally mandated paid maternity leave from three months to six. India's new policy easily outstrips most of the world. If India were an OECD country it would rank sixth, alongside Poland and Israel, for longest paid leave. Only the U.K., Ireland, Greece, Czech Republic and the Slovak Republic offer new mothers more paid time off.

India's new 26 weeks of paid leave surpasses France's 16-week leave and easily bests the 14 weeks available in Japan and Germany. Despite the new law, there are flaws: it only applies to the nation's 1.8 million female workers in organized labor and only if their company employs more than 10 workers, excluding another 16 million women who are deemed self-employed or work-from-home. There's also concern that the new law may serve as a disincentive to hiring women because their potential leave is an additional expense.

Will we get it?

Since Trump won the White House he has referenced paid leave for “parents" during his recent address to a joint session of Congress, and First Daughter Ivanka is reportedly pushing for Congressional support for a paid parental leave measure and child tax benefits. The proposal that Trump voiced, during his campaign, would give moms six weeks of paid leave. That would put the U.S., in last place among OECD nations, tied with Portugal and Australia, which also guarantee six weeks of paid leave.


Stephen Doyle