Friday, January 31, 2014

Pondering parental leave

In this week's State of the Union address, in discussing fair pay and family leave, President Obama said:
"...You know, she deserves to have a baby without sacrificing her job. A mother deserves a day off to care for a sick child or sick parent without running into hardship. And you know what, a father does too. It is time to do away with workplace policies that belong in a "Mad Men" episode. "
As my own maternity leave comes to an end, I find myself reflecting on this concept of gender and family equity in the workplace.

I am in a minority - lucky enough to have an employer with family friendly policies (not to mention an impressive history of gender equity). But during my years teaching at a community college, I was bombarded by stories of students who were demoted or fired by their employer while pregnant or passed over for promotion while caring for a family member. And these were not tall tales told by slackers. These were hardships related to me by my A+, always-in-class-early students. But these anecdotes are hardly surprising when we consider the data...

Selected employers notwithstanding, the United States has the weakest family leave policies of all 34 OECD member nations. In fact, U.S. family leave law is among the weakest in the world.
Source: Huffington Post with data from the International Labor Organization
The United States is the only nation that lacks a mandate for paid parental leave among 120 nations analyzed by the International Labor Organization and the U.S. is one of three countries in the world* with no paid parental leave.

I hardly think this is the type of American Exceptionalism we strive for.


According to OECD analysis reported by The Atlantic Bulgaria offers more than a year's worth of paid maternity leave (56 weeks) to women, while only the United States, Papua New Guinea, and Swaziland completely lack a national mandate for paid leave.

Among OECD countries, the average is 19 weeks of paid leave. In the United States mothers are now protected for up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave. But even that protection only applies to mothers who have been at their job for at least one year and who work at a large-enough company. Approximately 1 in 6 workers is employed by a company of fewer than 20 people, according to employer size statistics from the U.S. Census Bureau.

Source: The Atlantic with data from OECD

But even if that hurdle is surmounted, maternity leave is only one piece of the puzzle. Many nations mandate both maternity and paternity leave (or some flexible combination of both) to families, to allow both mothers and fathers an opportunity to bond with their newborn.
Among OECD countries, Bulgaria offers more than 56 paid weeks of maternity leave to women. But others, like Norway, offer generous paternity leave, and some countries allow parents to divide up leave between the two parents however they choose.
While an argument can be made that paid parental leave can be a financial strain on small companies, there is compelling evidence that generous family leave policies are a major draw for employee recruitment and retention. In fact, after California passed a law mandating paid leave, many employers found a net positive result from improved family leave policies. As reported by the research group CEPR:
"Despite fears expressed by opponents of the program that PFL would create a heavy burden on the state’s employers the vast majority of employers we surveyed reported positive effects or no effect at all on their productivity, profitability, or performance."
Unfortunately, while three states (California, New Jersey, and Rhode Island) have mandated paid family leave, most states have not. And voluntary paid family leave is becoming increasingly rare. According to Bloomberg News:
"The share of employers offering time off with full pay after childbirth dropped to 5.2 percent in 2012 from 6.1 percent in 2005, according to a survey by the Family and Work Institute... Some 41.1 percent offered unpaid leave in 2012, while 15.5 percent said their policy depended on the situation, which often means it varies by job level."
Mad Men episode, indeed.

*Note: The ILO analysis was published in 1998. At that time Australia and New Zealand also had no mandated paid parental leave. 2012 analysis by the OECD shows that Australia and New Zealand now both mandate paid parental leave, but Papua New Guinea, and Swaziland do not.


  1. JVMacias: I wonder what applicability those international policies have with regard to small or family-owed businesses? I find it highly doubtful that those paid leave policies apply uniformly to companies big, medium, and small. If those countries are anything like the US, then most of the businesses are small businesses, so I don't know if baby leave is as universal as suggested by the above data. That said, I do think that families are in need of more baby leave in the US.

    1. Good point. For what it's worth: Most businesses are small businesses, but most people work for large companies.

  2. I wonder if the other countries have pre- birthing work requirements? Like social security, you have to put in a certain amount of time before you get benefits.

    1. In the U.S. you have to have been at your job for at least a year to get guaranteed leave - even though it's unpaid! I would imagine the other nations have a similar requirement, but I am not sure of the details for each.


your insights?