Family Leave in the U.S. and Europe: A Comparison

American companies can do better. When we are behind Saudi Arabia in an issue relating to women's rights, you know there is a problem.
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In some U.S. companies, new parents are guaranteed their jobs for 12 weeks after the arrival of a new child. This law was established in 1993 by the Family Medical Leave Act. It was a progressive step for family-friendly policies in the U.S., but there is still no mandate that organizations pay their employees during that time. Therefore, we are still far behind the rest of the world.

Unfortunately, due to the qualifying restrictions of FMLA, "fewer than one-half of the nation's private-sector workers are eligible for leave." In Sweden, parents are given 480 paid leave days per child which can be used between moms and dads, making Sweden the most generous country for family leave in the world. But many other European countries are not far behind. Spain offers 112 paid days, the UK offers 280 days with 90 percent pay, France offers 112 days paid, and Italy offers 140 days with 80 percent pay.

And it's not just Europe. Russia offers 140 days with 100 percent pay, Mexico offers 84 days at 100 percent pay, Indonesia with 84 days at 100 percent pay, and China offers 90 days with 100 percent pay. All around the world, there are laws put in place to benefit new parents in the first few months. Even Saudi Arabia offers 70 days of leave with 50 percent pay. In fact, in addition to the U.S., the only other countries that do not mandate paid maternity leave are Lesotho, Swaziland, and Papua New Guinea.

The U.S. needs to catch up -- quickly! Not only is family leave good for families, it benefits the economy, too. A report from the Institute for Women's Policy Research found that, "firms incur few costs in addition to replacing pay (when paid leave is provided by the employer) and instead experience some substantial benefits." It may seem counterintuitive to think that more time out of work would benefit employers, but research suggests that paid leave helps retain workers and lowers the cost of turnover. This is especially true for low-wage workers who are more likely to return to work when they receive paid leave. Other evidence suggests that paid leave may even boost productivity and morale in the workplace. As a working mom, I know that I am much more efficient now than I was before having children. Whenever I have working moms on a project team, I am thankful because we all know how to maximize efficiency to get the work done -- before 5:30 p.m. (even if we have to sign back in later).

The Society for Human Resources Management reports that only 15 percent of companies have family leave policies above and beyond the federal requirement. Working Mother magazine puts out a list every year of the 100 Best Companies, all of which provide full paid leave. The magazine chooses companies based on benefits, flexible schedules, and other family friendly policies for mothers -- and fathers, too! You can check out the whole list here.

Some states are also leading the charge for more comprehensive leave. My current home, the District of Columbia, has established family leave laws that expand FMLA access to workers in smaller businesses, those with less time on the job, and offers a longer period of FMLA leave. Maryland law guarantees "flexible" use of sick leave to allow workers who earn sick leave through their employers to use that leave to care for an ill child or spouse. And Washington State has taken the first step toward providing paid leave for new parents, and the state's unpaid family leave law allows workers to take leave to care for the child of a domestic partner.

Want to help change U.S. maternity (and paternity) leave policy? You're not alone. President Obama has made it a priority to make sure the government creates policy that supports working families. You can write to your Congressional and state representatives to urge them to support better family leave legislation. If you are looking for a job, consider companies with better family leave policies. Pushing for family-friendly benefits in the workforce will help companies realize that it may become an economic necessity to provide.

American companies can do better. When we are behind Saudi Arabia in an issue relating to women's rights, you know there is a problem.

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