The U.S. stands nearly alone among developed countries in not guaranteeing paid time off to new mothers. But that less-than-generous state of affairs is changing, at least in parts of the country, and advocates are hopeful that steps taken this week will lead to nationwide coverage.
"I'm optimistic that in not too long the U.S. will join the rest of the world," said Vicki Shabo, vice president of the National Partnership for Women and Families. "We are the only high-wealth developed country that doesn't guarantee paid paternity leave, and one of two that doesn't offer sick leave to workers. Of the whole world, we're one of two countries -- us and Papua New Guinea -- that don't guarantee paid leave for new moms." Shabo cited a survey of 185 nations by the International Labour Organization.
"There are no other countries that we would think of as advanced that don't offer some paid maternity leave," said Amy Traub, a senior policy analyst at Demos, a left-leaning public policy group. "So many countries started guaranteeing maternity leave as more woman started to enter the workplace, and the U.S. just has been a laggard."
As things stand, only 13 percent of Americans have access to paid parental leave through their employer, but that count is poised to edge higher in years ahead, if events this week are any indication.
On Monday, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo signed legislation that will bring paid family leave, including parental leave, to the state in 2018, with workers initially entitled to 50 percent of their pay during eight weeks of leave.
The following day, San Francisco became the first city in the nation to approve six weeks of fully paid leave for new parents. In addition to Rhode Island and New Jersey, California already offers paid parental leave, with workers entitled to 55 percent of their wages for six weeks, funded by an employee-financed public disability insurance. The San Francisco ordinance, which begins in 2017, means employers will make up the 45 percent difference.
"We've seen a lot of tech companies recently extending paid leave," said Traub pointing to companies like Amazon (AMZN), Apple (AAPL), Google (GOOG), Microsoft (MSFT) and Netflix (NFLX), all of which offer comparably long parental leave. Starting May 1, Twitter (TWTR) will offer 20 weeks of fully paid parental leave to mothers and fathers working full-time for the social media site in the U.S., and the rest of the world two months later on a rolling basis.
"We're removing traditional gender and family stereotypes by extending our leave benefits to all parents, no matter the form parenthood takes," said Jeffrey Siminoff, Twitter's vice president of inclusion and diversity, in a statement. "Our benefits and culture are designed to help lessen the challenges all new parents face and broaden the reach of who's covered."
"Geography should not determine whether you can be there for your newly born child or with a dying parent. That's why we need a national policy," said Shabo, whose group supports federal legislation sponsored by Connecticut Rep. Rosa DeLauro and New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, both Democrats.
The Family and Medical Insurance Leave Act, which aims to ensure people have some income during family or medical leave, would upgrade a law in place since 1993 that basically means workers can't be fired for taking 12 unpaid weeks off to care for a newborn or deal with a serious illness.
The National Partnership in February released the results of a survey that found widespread bipartisan support for a national paid family and medical leave law.
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