Thursday, February 24, 2011

Should paid parental leave be a perk, or a requirement?

I wrote about the idea of paid parental leave in 2008, when the New Jersey State Senate approved legislation that would grant employees paid maternity or dependent-care leave, making my home state one of just two in the country to mandate paid maternity leave. (California is the other; both states fund the program through small payroll deductions.)

Since then, not only has the situation not gotten better, it's actually gotten worse. That's what we're talking about right now over at The 36-Hour Day.

In a 2005 survey of 168 developed countries, the United States was one of just five that didn't mandate paid maternity leave. Yesterday, a Human Rights Watch report; showed that, out of 190 countries studied, just three offered no legal guarantee of paid maternity leave: Papua New Guinea, Swaziland, and the United States. (Nine countries were unclear about their policy on paid leave for new mothers, and 178 guaranteed paid maternity leave.)

"Being an outlier is nothing to be proud of in a case like this," Janet Walsh, deputy women's rights director of Human Rights Watch and the author of the report, told Reuters. "Countries that have these programs show productivity gains, reduced turnover costs, and health care savings. We can't afford not to guarantee paid family leave under law -- especially in these tough economic times."

According to the report, "Failing its families: Lack of Paid Leave and Work-Family Supports in the US," of he 190 countries studied, 178 have national laws that guarantee paid leave for new mothers, and more than 50 also guarantee paid leave for new fathers. More than 100 countries offer 14 or more weeks of paid leave for new mothers, the 34 members of the Organization for Economic Co-Operation (which includes Bangladesh, Australia, China, Estonia, Russia and others) provide on average 18 weeks of paid maternity leave, with an average of 13 weeks at full pay, with additional paid parental leave available. (You can see a chart detailing their policies here.)

But maternity leave isn't the only place where we fall behind, according to the report: U.S. companies also lack accommodations for breast-feeding mothers, though the new health care law requires employers to provide reasonable breaks and accommodations for breastfeeding mothers who need to pump at work, and Surgeon General Regina M. Benjamin in January released a call to action to support breastfeeding. (Just 24 states, along with Puerto Rico and Washington, D.C., have laws relating to breastfeeding in the workplace.)

And there's one thing we have too much of: workplace discrimination against new parents. Women experience the so-called Motherhood penalty, in which working moms get less pay and less respect in the office, and men are struggling to "legitimize being a family-focused worker," a Boston College study showed.

The report backs up their assertions with interviews from 64 U.S. families, and some of their profiles are just heartbreaking:
Abigail Y. was working as a college professor when she gave birth to her daughter and had no maternity leave. She did have a few weeks off, but only by teaching all her class hours before giving birth, including leading a sea kayaking trip when she was seven months pregnant. Abigail’s employer was very negative about her pregnancy, and told her it was imperative there be no perception that she had taken maternity leave. ...

Hannah C. worked close to 38 hours a week in a bank when she became pregnant—just short of full-time. As a result she had no benefits, and did not take a day off during her nine months of pregnancy even though she was ill throughout. Instead, she was allocated the station closest to the restroom so that she could take two steps to throw up, freshen up, and come back out....

Paula R., an attorney, asked for a reduced or flexible schedule after her son was born. She was refused, contributing to her decision to quit. When her daughter was born two years later, Paula worked 30 hours a week at a small firm and had no benefits. She took a five week maternity leave, all unpaid. Her husband had no paternity leave, but had a somewhat flexible schedule. When Paula went back to work, she found that her employer had hired a new attorney and given away her office....

Though the federal Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) allows employees with newborns to take up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave without jeopardizing their jobs, only about half of U.S. workers are covered under it. The Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that only 11 percent of American employees have the option of taking paid medical leave, which is offered by some employers but is not required by the government.

I was lucky; though my company didn't offer paid leave, I was able to cobble together vacation time and sick time so that I could draw a paycheck (and pay our mortgage) while I was on maternity leave in 2004 and 2006. Even so, we blew through most of our savings so that I could extend each leave by a few precious weeks. Which brings me to the crux of the issue: How can working parents put their kids first if they can't take time off to care for them without going bankrupt?

Do you think paid parental leave should be a perk, or a government-mandated requirement?

1 comment:

Work Laws Exposed said...

For the record, I'm a women age 55. I have two kids. I had my kids before I started working.

Not everyone wants or has kids and if you give one group special perks, what do the rest get? It's basically discrimination. <a href="</a> I don't think a parent should lose their job because they have kids, but I also don't think anyone else should have to pay your bills because you had kids. If you're gonna have sex, be prepared for the consequences. It's called responsibility. Yea, I know, not everyone can pull that one off. I don't think the government should pay for it, but if businesses want to offer it as a perk, that's ok. But like I said, then they need to do something for the rest of the people not having kids to avoid the discrimination thing. I have no idea what that would be.

Right now there exists both federal and state programs and company benefits. Vacation, sick time, PTO, FMLA, SDI, PFL. It's a confusing mess. FMLA lets you have the time off without the risk of losing your job, but you don't get paid, you have to had worked for the company within the immediate 12 prior months, worked at least 1,250 hours and for a company that has at least 50 employees within a 75 mile radius. DAMN! That's just nuts. CA has PFL, but it doesn't guarantee you'll have a job when you get back. SDI is another option. Fix the system.