Paid Family Leave: Can We Change The Maternity And Paternity Leave Debates To Include Everyone?

What we should be debating is paidLeave.

As of this week, a new father in Finland may take 54 days of paid leave to spend with his child. In Australia, a similar law gives new Dads two weeks off to bond.

These are but the two newest countries to provide paternity leave, with pay. All over the world -- in places as diverse as Sweden (480 days; yes you read that right), Germany (365), Italy (90), Kenya (14), Switzerland (3) and Indonesia (2) -- legislators have realized that time with a child, without worry over a lost paycheck, is a right, not a frill.

And in the US?

You know the answer to that.

As Zach Rosenberg has been highlighting on 8BitDad, companies aren't required to offer paternity leave here. That is hardly surprising because while other countries are expanding their policies to include Dads, we are essentially the last place on the planet that hasn't even embraced the narrower idea of leave for mothers. There are only three countries like this -- Papua New Guinea, Swaziland... and the one that prides itself on being the leader of the world.

Put another way, the government of Bangladesh guarantees all new mothers 16 weeks off at full pay at 100 percent salary, while the U.S. government says it's up to our employer whether we get paid or not (and only 11 percent of private sector workers and 17 percent of public sector workers do.)

True, a few states -- California and New Jersey to be exact -- have their own laws, allowing five or six weeks at rates of pay that range from $250 a week to 66 percent of the employee's salary. But most do so under the Family and Medical Leave Act which allows up to 12 weeks of leave at no pay.

I have long marveled that there is no outcry over this. No grass roots demand. A steady hum of periodic studies and op-ed pieces, yes, but mostly an assumption that this isn't the way things work around here.

The rest of the world is puzzled too. During a conversation I had with the Danish Minister for Gender Equality recently (a father, by the way, named Manu Sareen) he wondered why Americans, who are such big proponents of rights and freedoms, don't see this as either of those things. He explained to me how the laws in Denmark differ from those in the U.S. There, mothers get four weeks of paid leave before giving birth, and 14 weeks afterward. Danish fathers get two paid weeks off, and both parents have the right to an additional 32 weeks of leave during the first nine years of a child's life. In his country, this is seen as "a social good and civil right. "

"We see equal society as equivalent to a sustainable society," he said, "so that's why we keep working on it." Rather than simply a matter of individual child care, which is how it has long been portrayed here, parental leave anchors the family and the economy, he explained: "It is very very effective because it gives a closer relationship between the man and the child and it actually reduces the chance of divorce later, and it also give the woman a better chance for having a career."

Why then has it been a non-starter for decades here in the US? And how to reverse that?

I have a suggestion. Since a primary objection to a national paid leave policy is essentially "why should I support someone else's decision to have a child?" then let's leap-frog past everyone else in the world and stop talking about parental leave completely. What we should be debating, instead, is paid Family Leave.

Because all of us have a family. And odds are that family will need us -- our elderly parent, our ailing sibling, or incapacitated spouse -- at some point in our lives. Adding a period of paid (or partially paid) time to the menu of accepted workplace benefits, eliminates the more picayune squabbles we've been having on the subject.

"Why doesn't my elderly mother count as much as your new baby?" She does. "Why must those of us who choose not to have children be less entitled to leave than those who do?" They mustn't. "Why should mothers get months of leave while father only weeks?" They shouldn't. Give all of us a bucket o' time and let us divide it in accordance with our needs -- and pay for it as we currently do for things like disability and unemployment.

As Cali Yost asked in Forbes this past spring:

There are workplace and public policies that plan for time off and income replacement in case of illness or injury. There are 401Ks and social security for when you retire and can no longer work. Why isn't there a coordinated, uniform workplace and public policy that offers time off and at least partial income replacement when people, inevitably, have babies or an aging parent needs care? Why?