Americans are educated to view life in the U.S. as a road to opportunity, but when it comes to workplace benefits the country can be more like a dead-end street.
The U.S. ranks dead last behind European countries in providing workplace benefits and leave, according to a new study from employment site Glassdoor. The report, which was completed with Llewellyn Consulting, finds that the U.S. is the least generous country on nine out of 12 issues, including sick days and maternity leave, while ranking among the least generous countries for the three other benefits.
The question of workplace benefits has increasingly entered the public dialogue. Even some presidential candidates are including the issue as part of their platforms. Bernie Sanders, for instance, supports paid sick leave and family leave, which the U.S. currently doesn't guarantee (and where Glassdoor ranks America in last place). Sanders has held up Denmark as a model for working people, and the Glassdoor report backs that up: It found that country to be the most generous with employee benefits and leave policies.
"The social safety net is an integral part of today's labor market," said Andrew Chamberlain, chief economist at Glassdoor, in the report. "Unemployment benefits take the rough edges off the business cycle, and paid maternity leave has been shown to improve children's wellbeing for decades down the road."
European countries are far more generous to workers than the U.S., although variations exist within the region. Denmark, France and Spain rank at the top, while Ireland, Switzerland and the U.K. are the region's least generous, the study found.
Every country in the European Union offers at least 14 weeks of paid maternity leave, for example, but some offer more than others. The U.K. and Ireland offer the longest periods, at 52 weeks and 42 weeks, respectively. Germany and Sweden, on the other hand, offer the minimum of 14 weeks.
"The U.S., in sharp contrast, has no general provision for paid maternity leave," the report noted. "However employed mothers may take advantage of short-term disability benefits offered at the state/federal level and many employers are instituting their own generous programs to attract and retain employees."
That means parents in the U.S. are often living in a two-tiered system, with workers at wealthier and more progressive companies offered paid maternity leave, while new parents at lower-paid jobs or less-liberal companies may need to go on unpaid leave when their child arrives.
"Academic research has shown parental leave can improve child health outcomes for years down the road," Chamberlain said in an email to CBS MoneyWatch. "Also, paternity leave can help equalize the burden of child care in families, allowing women to make freer choices in the job market."
Americans have long held a fascination with Europeans' lengthy vacations, given that the E.U. mandates a minimum of four weeks of paid vacation annually, compared with no mandated vacation time in the U.S. Americans typically negotiate their vacation time with their employer, although the standard is two weeks per year.
The most generous countries when it comes to annual vacation time are Sweden, France and Denmark, which each guarantying 25 working days, or five paid weeks. Similar patterns emerge with paternity leave, sick pay and leave, and unemployment benefits.
So, why doesn't the U.S. import the Danish system? For one, it's incredibly expensive. Single workers pay an average personal income tax rate of 38.4 percent in Denmark, according to the Organization for Economic Co-operation & Development. The total personal income tax in the U.S. is 24.8 percent.
Another issue is whether providing too many cushy benefits could undermine workers' desire to, well, work.
"Economists teach that there is a clear trade-off between the generosity of workplace leave and unemployment insurance, and incentives to engage in productive work," Chamberlain noted. "Mandated paid leave and generous unemployment benefits help workers in the short run, but there is a clear cost in the long term of less flexible labor markets and reduced work incentives."