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If you're getting paid while on maternity leave, consider yourself lucky: Out of 173 countries worldwide, the United States is one of only five that don't guarantee paid leave to give birth and care for a newborn, according to a recent study by researchers at Harvard and McGill universities.
"It's dramatically striking that the U.S. is so far behind the rest of the world," says lead researcher Jody Heymann, M.D., Ph.D., director of the Institute for Health and Social Policy at McGill in Montreal, Quebec. "Every industrialized country offers paid leave. So can the United States."
While a small minority of enlightened U.S. companies offer paid maternal leave, most don't, even though research shows the practice increases employee retention, reducing hiring and retraining expenses. "It's often too hard for companies to offer it if competitors don't," Heymann says. And while several states are considering paid family leave, California is the only one that currently offers it. "The only way to ensure that all Americans are protected is to pass federal legislation," she adds.
Earlier this year, Sen. Chris Dodd (D-Conn.) proposed expanding the federal Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993 (FMLA), which offers up to 12 weeks of unpaid job protection, to include six weeks of paid leave. However, last December, the U.S. Department of Labor requested comments on the FMLA, alarming several family- and health-advocacy groups that fear the protections for parents may be rolled back rather than increased.
Some argue that other countries can afford to be more generous because citizens pay more taxes. However, nearly all governments around the globe offer more protections than the United States, whether they're high-tax, low-tax, progressive or conservative. "It's also a myth that these countries have higher unemployment rates," says Heymann. The good news is that paid leave in the U.S. is gaining momentum, she adds: "Calls and e-mails to your representatives do make a difference."
There is something else you can do. The rapidly growing MomsRising advocates and organizes grassroots campaigns for maternity/paternity leave and other family issues. Join today at momsrising.org.
How America's Family-Workplace Policies Compare
• Of the 168 countries that guarantee paid maternity and/or paternity leave, 98 offer 14 or more weeks. These include Russia, Lithuania and Finland (about three years, at least partially paid) and Sweden and Germany (about two years per couple for each birth). Only the United States, Lesotho, Liberia, Swaziland and Papua New Guinea don't guarantee leave with pay.
• Sixty-six countries grant fathers either paid paternity leave or paid parental leave, with 31 of those countries offering 14 or more weeks. The U.S. guarantees fathers no such paid leave.
• A minimum of 107 countries protect a working woman's right to breastfeed; at least 73 of them provide for paid pumping/feeding breaks. The U.S., however, does not guarantee the right to breastfeed or pump at work.