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Parental leave: 5 reasons U.S. lags other countries

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Question: How is the United States like Papua New Guinea?

Answer: Along with the small southwestern Pacific nation -- whose GDP is roughly 0.1 percent as big as that of the U.S. -- America is one of only two countries out of 185 around the world for which data is available that doesn't offer paid maternity leave to new mothers.

Not surprising, then, that the U.S. also ranks last among developed nations in providing government support for working parents, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

The nation that ranks first, Estonia -- whose GDP, at $22 billion, is also a fraction of our $16 trillion economy -- guarantees new moms more than two years of paid leave, while their jobs are guaranteed for nearly four years.

Other nations with generous parental leave policies include Norway, which offers 35 weeks off at full pay; Poland, 26 weeks (100 percent pay); and Bulgaria, 32 weeks (90 percent pay).

Read on for 5 reasons why the U.S rates so poorly on family leave policies.

Family leave law excludes half of all workers

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Many new parents in the U.S. take time off to spend with their newborns under the federal Family and Medical Leave Act. That law, enacted in 1993, entitles new mothers 12 weeks of unpaid leave. (The law also benefits other workers by letting people take time to recover from illness or care for a sick family member.)

Trouble is, far fewer people are eligible for parental leave under the FMLA than is widely assumed. That's largely because the law exempts small businesses, defined as those with fewer than 50 employees. Most part-time workers also are disqualified because the act applies only to people who have worked at least 1,250 hours for the same employer over the last 12 months (or roughly 104 hours per month).

As a result, only about half of U.S. workers -- and less than 20 percent of new moms -- are covered under the FMLA.

Paid parental leave is rare

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Another reason that U.S. parents find it hard to take time off is that the Family and Medical Leave Act, while mandating time off for some workers, doesn't require the government or employers to offer paid leave. And the reality these days, especially as the economy struggles to emerge from the Great Recession, is that many people can't afford to take time off without pay.

"When leave isn't paid, it's not economically feasible," said Jane Farrell, a research associate with the Center for American Progress (CAP), a liberal-leaning think-tank. "Even if you have the guarantee of a job when you come back, what does that mean when you're making $10 an hour and you have no savings?"

Many larger employers do offer paid parental leave. For the broader U.S. labor force, however, only 12 percent of employees get paid family leave through their companies, according to CAP.

Indeed, a higher-paid job is no guarantee of getting paid leave. Labor data show that only slightly more than half of college-educated women work in jobs that allow them to keep drawing a paycheck for at least part of their leave period.

Other countries may also stint on paying parents on leave. For instance, Korea, Kuwait and Lebanon exclude domestic workers from their paid-maternity programs, while farm workers are ineligible in places like Bolivia and Egypt.

Unable to afford time off, many moms quit

Photo, file: AFP Photo/Pascal Guyot

With only a small fraction of U.S. workers getting paid leave through their jobs, relatively few new parents are able to take advantage of the unpaid time they get under the FMLA.

As a result, in any given week less than 1 percent of U.S. women age 16-to-44 take time away from work to care for a newborn or adopted child, researchers have found. Faced with having to balance work with caring for their babies, meanwhile, as many as 20 percent of women simply quit their jobs, federal census data shows.

Those who do manage to take time off often feel the financial pinch. Diana Godin, a New Hampshire mom who took six weeks away from her paramedic job last year to spend time with her newborn son, said going without a paycheck ate into her family's budget.

"I couldn't afford to take any more time," said Godin, whose husband is a firefighter and paramedic.

Paid leave even rarer for dads

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It's not only new moms who want time with their babies. Nearly 9 of 10 fathers said access to paid paternal leave is an important factor in deciding on a new job and whether to have another child, researchers from Boston College's Center for Work and Family found in a recent survey.

In the U.S., Labor Department data show, only about a fifth of employees work at a company that offers paid leave to new dads.

By contrast, roughly 70 countries around the world offer paternity leave, according to the International Labour Organization. In Slovenia, for instance, most new fathers take an average of 15 days off -- paid -- to spend time with their newborns, while in Sweden dads take about 10 days.

Many companies unaware of benefits of paid leave

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If family and medical leave insurance offers obvious benefits to workers, are there benefits for employers? Evidence suggests there are. Perhaps most important, paid leave helps companies retain workers and lower the cost of turnover, said Jane Farrell of the Center for American Progress.

Economist Eileen Appelbaum and sociologist have found that low-wage workers who used paid leave in California -- one of a handful of U.S. states with temporary disability programs that cover pregnancy -- were significantly more likely to return to an employer after their leave ended that employees who didn't get paid leave.

Although some business owners had concerns about the potential financial impact of paid leave before the state's program launched in 2004, subsequent surveys showed that a large majority found that the program didn't hurt -- and even boosted -- profitability. Other benefits reported by employers in the state include higher productivity, improved worker morale and reduced turnover.

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