U.S. maternity leave trails other countries, and going away may not mean 'out of the office'

Published: Tuesday, Feb. 26 2013 9:00 a.m. MST

Fewer than 11 percent of U.S. workers in the private industry have paid leave when a child is born, so America lags behind all other industrial countries and most others, too. Even when folks take leave, they may not leave work at the office.


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With fewer than 11 percent of working parents in the private industry receiving paid leave when a child is born, America lags behind every other industrial country — and most others, too. And when new moms and dads take leave, they may not be able to leave work at the office. Technology has extended work's reach into homes and nurseries.

The New York Times notes that "when it comes to paid parental leave, the United States is among the least generous in the world, ranking down with the handful of countries that don't offer any paid leave at all, among them Liberia, Suriname and Papua New Guinea."

That doesn't mean that some parents can't take leave at the birth of a child. It has been 20 years since the Family and Medical Leave Act became law. Under its provisions, large employers and public agencies must provide up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave, as well as continue health benefits, for birth or adoption of a child, to care for a spouse, parent or child who is ill or for an individual's own health issues. The provision applies to companies with 50 or more employees and it extends to employees who worked 1,250 or more hours within the previous 12 months.

Considering all the people that don't fit within those parameters and adding in the people who can't afford to take unpaid leave, and close to 40 percent of workers "fall through the cracks," wrote the Times' Tara Siegel Bernard.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates 11 percent of private industry workers have access to paid family leave. The Institute for Women's Policy Research says those most likely to have paid leave are those with higher salaries in managerial or professional jobs at large companies, the newspaper said.

In December, The Atlantic wrote about a few countries that, despite challenges, provide some level of paid leave: "Afghanistan, which has a 26 percent literacy rate and nine million people living on less than one dollar a day, yet still manages to provide new mothers with 12 weeks off with pay; Djibouti, an African nation plagued by civil war and drought that is home to many nomadic herders and still manages to guarantee 14 weeks of paid maternity leave; and the Democratic Republic of Congo, one of the poorest nations in the world — if not the very poorest — which nevertheless offers mothers 15 weeks off with full pay."

Working Mother lists each year what it calls 100 best large companies (500-plus employees) and parental leave policies are one of the aspects it considers. The magazine said that the average time off in 2012 was seven weeks of paid leave for moms, while new dads received about three paid weeks. Those who adopt a child average six weeks of leave.

Bernard wrote about states' efforts to provide more generous paid leave. For example, New Jersey provides "two-thirds of the average of a worker's last eight weeks of pay, to a maximum of $584 a week." California workers pay 1 percent of their wages to cover their state disability insurance and paid family leave insurance, capped at 55 percent of a weekly salary up to about $1,000 a week." The National Partnership for Women and Families lists other state approaches.

States are looking at other aspects of parental leave having nothing to do with pay, but rather focusing on time off. For instance, New Mexico's House of Representatives recently approved a measure to grant some limited parental leave to high school students who have a baby, according to an Associated Press story. If it becomes law, "The measure will establish a statewide policy requiring at least 10 days of leave when a student gives birth. The excused absences also will be available to the child's father. A pregnant teen or a student who is a parent will receive four days of leave per semester, in addition to any absences allowed by a school for all students."

As an article in The Washington Post emphasized, being on leave doesn't always mean leaving your work behind.