February 25, 2013 — The U.S. lags behind most other countries on the issue of universal paid family leave, but efforts to expand the reach of the country's unpaid leave law have been "painfully slow," the New York Times reports.
Only eight countries -- including the U.S., Liberia and Papua New Guinea -- do not offer any paid leave, according to Jody Heymann, an author and dean of the University of California-Los Angeles' Fielding School of Public Health.
The Family and Medical Leave Act, signed into law 20 years ago this month, allows eligible employees to take up to 12 weeks of unpaid, job-protected leave each year to care for a new child or sick family member or to deal with a serious illness. However, about 40% of U.S. workers are not covered under the law because it only applies to companies with 50 or more employees. Employees also must have worked for the company for at least one year and logged 1,250 hours in the past year to be eligible.
Only 11% of workers in the private sector and 16% of state and local government workers have access to paid family leave, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Federal workers do not receive any paid family leave.
Among U.S. companies that do provide paid maternity leave, the average time off given in 2012 was seven weeks for women and three weeks for new fathers, according to Working Mother. By comparison, 31 countries guarantee at least one year of paid maternity leave, according to experts.
Vicki Shabo, director of work and family programs at the National Partnership for Women & Families, said FMLA "was really intended as a first step," adding, "People really see this as an individual struggle that they need to be responsible for rather than the societywide, systemic issue it is."
The Partnership and the Center for American Progress are working to draft national legislation that would require companies to provide up to 12 weeks of paid leave. The cost would be split between workers and employers. Several states -- including California, New Jersey and New York -- already have created similar paid leave requirements. However, the patchwork of state laws and company policies can be difficult to navigate for new parents and other workers in need of leave.
"It shouldn't matter where you live or who you work for," Shabo said, adding, "All that matters is that you should have time to take care of your children without worrying about facing major financial turmoil" (Siegel Bernard, New York Times, 2/22).
Debra Ness, publisher & president, National Partnership
Andrea Friedman, associate editor & director of reproductive health programs, National Partnership
Marya Torrez, associate editor & senior reproductive health policy counsel, National Partnership
Melissa Safford, associate editor & policy advocate for reproductive health, National Partnership
Perry Sacks, assistant editor & health program associate, National Partnership
Cindy Romero, assistant editor & communications assistant, National Partnership
Justyn Ware, editor
Amanda Wolfe, editor-in-chief
Heather Drost, Hanna Jaquith, Marcelle Maginnis, Ashley Marchand and Michelle Stuckey, staff writers
Tucker Ball, director of new media, National Partnership