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Janet Walsh Headshot

The U.S. Lets Families Down

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As Maria Shriver hits the airwaves this week to talk about work-life balance and her new report on women in America, I'm making my own work-life transition.

I just returned to work after nearly one year of maternity leave. That's right: one year. When I tell this to people in the United States, their reaction is shock. Shock at how long my leave lasted, and although most of it was unpaid, that my employer is so accommodating. When I talk to my in-laws and friends in Germany, their reaction is also shock. They, however, find my leave completely inadequate, and are appalled that most people in the United States have no paid parental leave.

The Shriver Report examines women's status in the U.S workplace and makes strong recommendations on family-friendly work policies, including paid family leave. Paid family leave improves children's health by making it easier to breastfeed and to get essential care and immunizations. It improves families' economic condition and helps them avoid the financial squeeze so often associated with childbirth. It promotes women's participation in and connection to the workforce. And it can benefit employers by reducing staff turnover and lowering recruitment and training costs.

The Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA) requires that employers with 50 or more workers grant up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave a year for limited reasons, including the birth or adoption of a child. But no national law requires paid family leave. A U.S Department of Labor survey showed that among workers entitled to FMLA leave who didn't take it, 78 percent said they could not afford to miss a paycheck.

A handful of states offer some paid family leave benefits. Just two -- California and New Jersey -- guarantee a portion of prior earnings for up to six weeks. Washington State also enacted a law to provide up to $250 per week for up to five weeks, but the program is not yet operating. A few states have temporary disability insurance programs that offer some support.

But in the vast majority of states, it is up to employers to decide whether to offer this benefit. A 2008 Bureau of Labor Statistics survey found that only 9 percent of US workers had paid family leave, and even fewer of the lowest-earning workers had such leave.

In Germany and most of Europe, it's a very different story. The German government pays Elterngeld or "parents' money" of up to 67 percent of a parent's net income for a year after the birth or adoption of a child. The monthly payments range from 300 to 1800 euros (US$438 to $2,627). Two more months are paid if the second parent takes leave. In addition, the law allows parents to leave their jobs for up to three years when they have a new child, and employers must take them back on the same conditions. The government also pays Kindergeld or "children's money," a monthly allowance of up to several hundred euros to defray some of the cost of raising children.

Germany is far from alone. A groundbreaking November 2009 book, by Professors Jody Heymann and Alison Earle, will reveal that of countries surveyed around the world, 177 offered paid leave for new mothers, including some of the world's poorest countries. One hundred and one offered 14 or more weeks of paid leave. Only four guaranteed no paid family leave: the United States, Australia, Swaziland, and Papua New Guinea. Australia will soon fall out of these ranks: starting in 2011, the government will pay 18 weeks of parental leave. The book, Raising the Global Floor, also proves that policies designed to help parents balance work and caregiving have no negative impact on economic competitiveness or employment levels.

The United States is also out of step with international law. The main global women's rights treaty, the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, or CEDAW, requires governments to take measures to introduce paid maternity leave or comparable social benefits. The International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights requires the same thing. The International Labour Organization calls on governments to ensure that women get at least 18 weeks of maternity leave with cash or social assistance. The US has ratified none of these treaties.

Several bills on paid leave pending in the US Congress could make an important difference for families. The Family Income to Respond to Significant Transitions (FIRST) Act would provide federal grants to states to establish paid family and medical leave programs; the Federal Employees Paid Parental Leave Act would give federal employees four weeks of paid parental leave; and the Family Leave Insurance Act would guarantee up to 12 weeks of pay for time off under the FMLA. Congress should pass these laws. In the interim, state legislatures should enact state laws guaranteeing paid family leave. The US Senate should also ratify the international treaties, starting with CEDAW, that protect the right to paid family leave, without making any "reservations" (legalese for a cop-out) on this issue.

Now, I'm not complaining about my personal situation. Since I work for one of those family-friendly employers that the Shriver Report talks about, I had almost a year at home to care for my baby. I could manage, just barely, to swing this financially. But millions of American parents cannot because U.S law is failing them. The United States should catch up with the rest of the world, and give parents time and support to care for new children.

That's where you come in. Neither Congress nor state legislatures will act without pressure from women -- and men -- who support paid family leave. Contact your representatives today to tell them paid family leave is vital for children, parents, businesses, and the country. Send them an email, give them a call, or scrawl your message on a diaper and mail it to them if you wish. Just make yourself heard. It matters.

Around the Web

U.S. Policies on Maternity Leave "Among the Worst", Employees-Work ... - U.S. stands apart from other nations on maternity leave

Parental leave - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia