Why Doesn’t the US Have Paid Maternity Leave?

America has a weak work-family support system and a large reason for this is the lack of paid parental leave.  Problems that result from this weak work-family support system include, among several other issues, delayed immunizations and doctor visits for babies, lower rates of breastfeeding, and financial difficulties for parents.  Delayed immunizations, fewer doctor visits, and low rates of breastfeeding negatively affect infant health.  This may lead to health problems throughout the life of the child.  Society is negatively affected when its denizens are unable to contribute their fullest to society and need a lot of health care.  The parents may also not be able to contribute as much as they would otherwise to society or be as productive at work.  Several parents who face financial difficulties, in large part because of the costs of raising children and the weak work-family support system in America, have to go on public assistance and/or file for bankruptcy. [1]

Despite societal benefits from providing paid parental leave and thousands of people in the position of needing help with infant care, the United States only provides unpaid parental leave.  To put this into perspective, the United States, Swaziland, and Papua New Guinea are the only countries in the world that do not offer paid parental leave.  The Human Rights Watch posits that paid parental leave should be a right. [2]

The Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA) has been in place in America since 1993.  It provides for 12 weeks of unpaid job protected leave for new parents and to care for either one’s own serious health conditions of for a member of the employee’s family.  However, employees and employers have to meet certain requirements to be eligible for leave under the FMLA. Because of these requirements, only 11% of employers and 58% of all employees in America are eligible. [3]

The impact of FMLA on employees is mixed.  Approximately 18% of eligible employees actually used leave protected under FMLA and roughly 24% of those employees used it for parental leave.  Almost 54% of the people who used leave under the FMLA were worried about finances since the leave is unpaid.  About 77% of employees said they needed the leave but didn’t take it because they couldn’t afford it. [4]

From the above statistics, it is clear that too many employees are not eligible for FMLA leave and/or too many employees cannot afford to take unpaid parental leave.  It does not appear that America will have improved parental leave legislation anytime in the near future since the most recent proposed bills to supplement the FMLA did not even make it out of committee. [5]  One of the main arguments against paid parental leave in America is that it’s not economically efficient.  I disagree.  Most other countries are able to provide paid parental leave for their citizens without detrimental economic effects.  Other employers and employees are able to work together to allow new parents to have paid parental leave.  It is possible.  We just need to realize, as a society, the importance of paid parental leave, and then work together to ensure paid parental leave is a possibility for new parents.

[1] Failing its Families: Lack of Paid Leave and Work-Family Supports in the US (New York: Human Rights Watch, 2011), 1-2.

[2] Ibid.

[3] U.S. Department of Labor, Wage and Hour Divison’s 2000 Survey Report

[4] Ibid.

[5] H.R. 2339: Family Income to Respond to Significant Transitions Act & H.R. 2346: Balancing Act of 2011


7 thoughts on “Why Doesn’t the US Have Paid Maternity Leave?

  1. GoodReason says:

    The US will reap what it has sown with regard to this issue. When we treat mothers cavalierly, the children will not reach their potential.

  2. Crys says:

    This is one of the many instances that show America is not as good to women as most believe. I worry most have become complacent and think we have reached “equality” and “fair” treatment of women. But the truth is we are so far from it. There is so much work that needs to be done. It is posts like this that bring these issues to light. Thank you.

  3. Chelsea says:

    I read an interesting study once that showed how paid maternity leave actually stopped women from reaching high power positions, because in these countries that offered paid maternity leave women, employers were less likely to promote women. It’s a hard issue. I think joint parental leave is the best option.

    • istinatv says:

      Chelsea, I would not believe in good intentions of the article you are citing here. I can tell you from my experience that giving a full year of maternity leave is the best thing that can happen to a mother,not to mention how good it is for her child, family, community and the country itself. As a professional person I was given maternity leave, fully paid in a communist country, former Yugoslavia, 24 years ago, and it was one of the best periods of my life! After I came back to work I was able to advance in my career with no problems whatsoever! In fact that period of pause in my profession had just secured my balance of professional-private life and gave me time to reflect on a different, more mature perspective on life and acceptance of dual role of professional on one side and my natural role as a mother on the other. Today, my daughter is a successful young professional and I am free 100% to pursue my profession as I see fit.
      Based on this positive experience of mine (and there are many more) there may be many situations where western countries could learn from other developing countries how to treat women, especially mothers.
      I you still believe that women will be at disadvantage for promotion after maternity leave, what can you say then about millions of Americans who are back to work after being unemployed for a year or even longer, and their chances for promotions? Would that be a reason enough for government to not pay them their unemployment insurance? Of course if such protection exists in US, as I know it exists in Canada where I live today. They usually have to start with lower positions than they had when they left their previous jobs. This is especially true for women.Is government doing anything to protect those people?
      But this is a debate for another topic, which I would you encourage WomanStats to write about.
      Azra from Bosnia (twitter azra13)

  4. CPC says:

    Second Chelsea. We need paid maternity AND paternity leave that can be used by one or both parents to care for both the newborn and the new mother. The US is so behind the times in regards to mother’s rights.

  5. ray gorman says:

    Baby making is not a job function, girls. And you might try considering the rights of the poor bastards drowning in overwork while you reproduce on the company’s time.

  6. mike says:

    Some women have early menopause because of surgery or other treatment, illness, or other reasons. If you don’t have a period for 90 days, you should see your doctor. He or she will check for pregnancy, early menopause, or other health problems that can cause periods to stop or become irregular.

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