The Time Has Come For Progressive Family Leave In America

Co-Authored by Ellen Offner, Principal, Offner Consulting, LLC, health care strategy and program development.

What do Papua New Guinea, Oman, and the United States of America have in common? They are the only three countries in the world with no paid-maternity-leave law. The United States tops the list of the ten worst countries for parental benefits, tied with Lesotho and Swaziland.

Hillary Clinton has advocated paid family leave for maternity, and the Clinton Foundation offers a generous benefit: 12 weeks of fully paid leave if they are primary caregivers and six paid weeks if they are secondary caregivers. Men and women choose who is primary and who is secondary, an expansion since 2015, when Chelsea Clinton said in an interview that the foundation offered mothers 12 weeks of paid leave and fathers two weeks.

Ivanka Trump designed a maternity leave policy for her father to present to the nation (labeled as Ivanka Trump Memorial by the Wall Street Journal), one that falls far short of Secretary Clinton's. And according to New York Magazine she has mischaracterized her father's opponent's long record of advocating for family leave and lying about such benefits in Trump companies. "His campaign has, as recently as mid-August, refused to address whether it provided paid leave to its employees. Of nine former Trump employees who were willing to speak to the Daily Beast in August, only one was able to recall any maternity leave offered by Trump, and remembered it as unpaid." Further, Ivanka has claimed that the Trump Organization offers fully paid leave for all of the company's thousands of employees, but a Huffington Post investigation found that workers at Trump's Soho, New York, and Miami hotels had not been offered paid maternity leave but rather unpaid leave in accordance with FMLA. The unveiling of this proposal so close to the end of the campaign may appear opportunistic to some observers, but if perceptions of what the populace wants in a candidate can influence the candidates that is a positive impact.

In Italy, known for its fine wines, gastronomy, art, and music, a Fertility Day campaign trumpeted to men: "Don't Let Your Sperm Go Up in Smoke." The main welfare system is still the grandparents, resulting in working women unwilling and in many cases unable, from a financial point of view, to have babies. This is creating a challenging demographic situation in the country, which has one of the lowest birthrates in the world. This is the result of the lack of meaningful support by the government and many employers. "Many working women, without an extended family to care for a child, face a dilemma, as private child care is expensive. Some also worry that their job security may be undermined by missing workdays because of child care issues. Many companies do not offer flexible hours for working mothers. . . . Italian families have been shrinking for decades. In 2015, 488,000 babies were born in Italy, the fewest since the country first unified in 1861. It has one of the lowest birthrates in Europe, with 1.37 children per woman, compared with a European average of 1.6, according to Eurostat figures.

It is thrilling that both the Republican and Democratic candidates for President of the United States have put forth plans that are responsive to the need for maternity leave. The Clinton plan, however, is considerably more gender neutral than the Trump plan. Trump's plan calls for six weeks of paid maternity leave for mothers who do not already receive leave from their employer. Clinton has proposed a guaranteed twelve weeks of paid family leave for parents caring for newborns, parents caring for sick children, children caring for sick or elderly parents, or any other circumstance in which someone might need time off from work to care for a family member in some way.

Congratulations are due to Ivanka for highlighting this pressing issue with her father. But Hillary Clinton has shown leadership on this issue for many years, and her proposed program is far more comprehensive and gender-neutral than her opponent's. In addition, she recognizes the growing need for family members to provide care for elderly parents. With life expectancy in the United States having risen to 78.8 on average, eldercare has rapidly become as big a challenge for families as childcare. Clinton's broad vision is impressive, taking into account the full spectrum of current and prospective caregivers. Trump's proposal, while commendable, is limited, benefits affluent families more than poor ones, and has the appearance of being hastily pulled together to gain votes from young mothers like Ivanka.

If the presidential candidates are looking for inspiration, they need look no farther than our neighbor on the north, Canada. Canada has both unpaid pregnancy leave of up to seventeen weeks and unpaid parental leave of up to 35 weeks for women who have taken pregnancy leave and up to 37 weeks for birth mothers who have not taken pregnancy leave and all other new mothers as well as for fathers. In most cases, employees must be given their old job back at the end of their pregnancy or parental leave.

Now for a parental paradise: Sweden has some of the most generous parental leave laws in the world -- and the government not only considers the mother, but also the father. Parents are allocated a total of 480 days per child, which they can take any time until the child is 8 years old. They can share these days, although 90 are allocated specifically to the father. And they are entitled to receive 80 percent of their wages, although this is capped at a certain level. And to make this benefit even sweeter, parental leave can be taken until the child is eight years old.

We don't lack for models of policies that support families, especially parents and children, regardless of gender and ability, as well as those that provide aid for inter-generational care by family members. Let us hope that our next president, with the help of Congress, implements some of these forward-looking, family-friendly policies.