US last in paid parental leave

The U.S. is lagging behind other nations by not offering paid time off to new parents.
By
  • Julian Switala
February 28, 2011

When a legal survey puts the legal guarantees the U.S. offers workers in the same category as those offered by Papua New Guinea and Swaziland, chances are there is a poor government policy in place.

Last week Human Rights Watch, an international nongovernmental organization, conducted a study which investigated the amount of guaranteed paid parental leave in 190 countries.

Out of the 190 countries surveyed, 178 have guaranteed paid leave for new mothers, nine were unclear about their paid leave policy and three — including the U.S. — offered no legal guarantee of paid leave.

This places the U.S. decades behind most other nations in the category of worker protection.

Nevertheless, at a time when the U.S. is sluggishly recovering from a recession, and when the deficit is more than one trillion dollars, providing paid leave seems counterproductive to many.

If individuals were able to take paid leave, then productivity would fall and business would face further costs attempting to hire temporary staff to cover losing employees.

Understandably, employers aren’t allowed to fire or not hire individuals who may become a parent in the near future. Such an allowance would constitute discrimination.

In response to the economic arguments against paid parental leave, Janet Walsh, author of the HRW report, said, "Countries that have these programs show productivity gains, reduced turnover costs and health care savings."

In regards to health care savings, paid parental leave has been shown to have a positive effect on health. For instance, a leave which is several weeks long resulted in increased immunizations, increased health visits, increased breastfeeding, less infant mortality and less postpartum depression.

These findings are especially relevant in the U.S. The HRW report claims that workplaces severely lack breastfeeding accommodations and that there are many instances of "workplace discrimination against new parents."

Congress has attempted to pass parental leave legislation in the past, but these have generally failed due to entrenched business interests and lobbyists.

Regardless, the Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993 allows new parents or workers with extremely ill family members to take 12 weeks of unpaid leave.

However, only half of the American workforce is covered by this piece of legislation because it isn’t provided to companies with less than 50 employees. Even then, out of the millions covered there’s no guaranteed that they can afford to take unpaid leave.

This policy is in stark contrast to those which exist around the world. Other countries have legally codified the importance of supporting working parents. More than 100 countries provide more than 13 weeks of paid leave for new mothers and more than 50 countries provide paid leave for new fathers.

Currently, with an average of 18 weeks, the EU leads the world in how much paid leave it provides to new mothers. Despite the 2008 recession and economic downturn in the EU, parental leave benefits have either increased or remained the same, according to a 2010 European Commission report.

Although these policies may appear to be financially foolish, HRW asserts that, "public expenditures on maternity leave amount to an average of 0.3 percent of GDP for countries in the [EU] and the [Organization for Economic Co-Operation and Development]."

Additionally, employers rarely directly pay for leave benefits. Instead, the funds for leave programs are financed through payroll tax deductions, health insurance and other public policy mechanisms.

These policies haven’t been shown to be taxing on the economic productivity of nations. A major global survey in 2010 by Dr. Jody Heymann of McGill University and Dr. Alison Earle of Northeastern University found that countries guaranteeing leave for family health issues were among the top when judged in economic competitiveness.

Of course, the HRW report was somewhat overstated since there actually are guarantees for paid parental leave in the U.S., albeit not nationwide.

Although there are only two states with publically paid family leave insurance programs — California and New Jersey — the ability for states to pass their own legislation shows that the U.S. is not drastically behind the rest of the world.

The Center for Economic and Policy Research and the City University of New York found strong evidence that the California program "had a positive or neutral effect on productivity, profitability, turnover and employee morale," according to HRW.

Ultimately, ignoring an infant’s early development through lack of employee benefits can only harm the human capital of the U.S.

 

Julian Switala welcomes comments at jswitala@mndaily.com.

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