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Report decries lack of paid parental leave in US

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DAVID CRARY
February 23, 2011
— Americans often take pride in ways their nation differs from others. But one distinction lack of a nationwide policy of paid maternity leave is cited in a new report as an embarrassment that could be redressed at low cost and without harm to employers.

"Despite its enthusiasm about 'family values,' the U.S. is decades behind other countries in ensuring the well-being of working families," said Janet Walsh, deputy director of the women's rights division of Human Rights Watch. "Being an outlier is nothing to be proud of in a case like this."


Human Rights Watch, based in New York, focuses most of its investigations on abuses abroad. But on Wednesday, with release of a report by Walsh on work/family policies in the U.S., it takes the relatively unusual step of critiquing a phenomenon affecting tens of millions of Americans.


The report, "Failing its Families," says at least 178 countries have national laws guaranteeing paid leave for new mothers, while the handful of exceptions include the U.S., Swaziland and Papua New Guinea. More than 50 nations, including most Western countries, also guarantee paid leave for new fathers.


Past efforts in Congress to enact a paid family leave law have floundered, drawing opposition from business lobbyists who say it would be a burden on employers.


Instead, there is the 1993 Family and Medical Leave Act, which enables workers with new children or seriously ill family members to take up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave. By excluding companies with fewer than 50 employees, it covers only about half the work force, and many who are covered cannot afford to take unpaid leave.


"Leaving paid leave to the whim of employers means millions of workers are left out, especially low-income workers who may need it most," said Walsh, citing federal estimates that only 10 percent of private-sector workers have paid family leave benefits.


With prospects for federal legislation considered dim for now, advocates of family-friendly workplace policies hope for progress at the state level and are looking closely at California and New Jersey, the only states that have paid-leave programs.


Both states have severe budget problems overall, but the leave programs financed entirely through small payroll tax contributions by workers are flourishing. Both offer six weeks of paid leave for workers taking time off to bond with a new child or to care for a seriously ill child, spouse or parent.


Human Rights Watch, which interviewed dozens of parents for its report, said lack of paid leave has numerous harmful consequences fueling postpartum depression, causing mothers to give up breast-feeding early, forcing some families into debt or onto welfare.


The Human Rights Watch report urges other states to emulate New Jersey and California by adopting paid leave programs. Any takers might get federal help the Obama administration, in its recent budget proposal, proposed allocating $23 million to help states with startup costs for such initiatives.


In California, Chamber of Commerce policy advocate Jennifer Barrera said the leave program combined with other policies "creates a significant administrative burden on employers, increases costs, and minimizes the ability of companies to expand hiring and create new jobs."


However, Eileen Appelbaum of the Center for Economic and Policy Research, a liberal Washington think tank, said she and a colleague reached a different conclusion in a recent survey of 235 California businesses. She said the vast majority of employers found the leave program had a positive or neutral effect on productivity, profitability, turnover and worker morale.


Appelbaum contended that business associations, rather than individual employers, were the main obstacle to paid-leave proposals in Congress and state legislatures.


"Employer associations in other countries help their companies be successful," she said. "In this country, employer associations largely exist to resist anything that might be good for workers."


In the European Union, paid parental leave varies from 14 weeks in Malta to 16 months in Sweden, which reserves at least two months of its leave exclusively for fathers. Most EU countries have maintained the provisions of their programs despite the recession.


Ellen Bravo of the Family Values at Work Consortium, a 15-state network working for family-friendly policies, said the bid to expand paid leave in the U.S. was hampered by the clout of corporate lobbyists and the relatively weak status of the labor movement.


"Family values often end at the workplace door," she said. "What we're fighting for isn't just modest it's meager compared to what other countries have."



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