Maternity leave has been shown to provide significant benefits to new mothers and their families. It helps women avoid the pressure to reduce their employment, leave their careers, and stay home with the children. Protected paid leave means that women don’t have to choose between their jobs and their families. It also means that it’s easier to divide the responsibilities of child care more equally between the parents. Men are more able to be active participants in their child’s early life.

Maternity leave laws vary widely between countries, however. In France and Spain, protected job leave reaches over three hundred weeks – about six years – while mothers in Switzerland receive only fourteen weeks of protected leave, but do get eighty percent of the mother’s usual pay. The US ranks twentieth out of twenty-one countries, providing only twenty-four weeks of combined [tag]job leave[/tag] for a two parent family, and no financial support to the family.

US maternity leave

The US Family and Medical Leave Act does set a minimum standard for parental leave. However, small companies and short term employees are excluded from the act. That means around forty percent of the workers in the country aren’t eligible for protected leave. Employers have no stepped up to provide leave to these people. Only about a fourth of the employers in the United States offer fully paid maternity leave for any length of time, and a fifth of employers won’t give employees leave at all.

In order to receive the twelve months of unpaid leave you’re guaranteed under the Family and Medical Leave Act (which took ten years to pass,) you’ll need to work at the same job for at least a year before you take the time off. During that period, you’ll need to have worked for at least one thousand, two hundred fifty hours. Of course, if you work for a firm with less than fifty employees, your employer doesn’t even have to give you this – no time off is required for smaller companies. Many large companies do offer a paid leave package, but over half of the companies in the United States employ fifty people or less.

Add in the fact that most women can’t afford to leave their jobs for this length of time – the income is needed to keep the home running with a new baby – and the majority of women don’t really get the leave they need. Instead, they go right back to work, leaving their young children with sitters, day care, or other family members. Three states currently offer paid leave programs: New Jersye, California and Washington. This is partially paid leave – workers can receive a set fee, or a percentage of their wages – usually about half to two thirds.

By contrast, Chile, Malawi, Mexico and Morocco all provide at least eight weeks of fully paid leave. Botsqana and Myanmar both offer twelve weeks of partially paid leave, and Bosnia & Herzegovinia offer fifty-two weeks of fully paid leave. The twelve weeks per parent offered in the United States is matched by such countries as Ghana, Zambia, and Swaziland. Australia also gives only unpaid leave, but permits a full year.

Which countries do the best when it comes to maternity leave?

Norway, Finland, Sweden and Greece all have generous paid leave, with non transferable leave quotas for each parent, plus universal coverage. Eligibility restrictions are relatively low, the financing methods used allow employers to share their risk, and scheduling leave is flexible. The US, unfortunately, falls well short of the best practices used in these other countries. While the FMLA provides for non-transferable leave, no paid leave is provided. Flexibility is neither guaranteed nor encouraged.

The good news is that companies which do offer leave are usually doing a little better than the law requires, and some US states have leave requirements which rely on state level financing and administration, and provide somewhat more protection. These leave policies are still not up to the standard set by countries currently using best practices, though.

Generous, gender equal, universal, flexible policies financed via social insurance methods could make a big difference in the lives of many women. This kind of maternity leave reduces the burden on women, as well as the impact child-bearing has on their careers. Raising children shouldn’t fall on women alone, and it shouldn’t make you lose your job. That’s why good quality maternity leave in the US should be a priority.


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