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Paid Parental Leave in the U.S. vs. Other Developed Countries

Nearly all developed countries throughout the world have a national policy that provides new parents with paid time off to care for and bond with their children. The United States is not one of them. In fact, the U.S. is the only country classified by the World Bank as high-income that does not have paid maternity leave.

However, the issue of paid parental leave has been gaining momentum on both the state and national levels; several states have created their own paid parental leave programs, and new federal law provides government workers with 12 weeks of paid time off after having, adopting, or fostering children.

Many Democratic and Republican lawmakers say they support paid parental leave, as do a majority of Americans. However, opinions vary greatly on how paid parental leave should be funded,  an issue politicians and advocates have been debating for years.

To help you get up to speed on the topic, this article addresses frequently asked questions on:

  • The current paid and unpaid leave policies in the U.S.,
  • How other developed countries implement their paid leave programs, and
  • The types of paid leave programs being proposed in the U.S.

Parental Leave Definitions

Here are the terms to know before diving in:

  • Paid leave is a leave of absence from employment for parents that takes place around a qualifying event, such as the birth or adoption of a child. Employers continue to pay the entirety or a portion of the parent's regular earnings.
  • Unpaid leave is a leave of absence from employment that takes place around a qualifying event, such as childbirth or adoption, during which time employees are not paid but their jobs are protected.
  • Maternity leave (or pregnancy leave) can be paid or unpaid and is a leave of absence from employment for women that takes place around the time of childbirth or adoption.
  • Paternity leave is a leave of absence for employed fathers that can be paid or unpaid and takes place in the first few months after childbirth or adoption.
  • Parental leave is a leave of absence for employed parents which can be paid or unpaid and typically is available after maternity or paternity leave. In some cases it is available to both parents, while in others it is specifically allocated for mothers or fathers only.
  • Family/medical leave (also called "comprehensive" leave) refers to paid or unpaid leave that doesn't just apply to parents with new children but also medical leave for a worker's own serious injury or illness, family leave to care for a family member with a serious medical condition, and exigency leave related to a family member's military deployment.

Does the U.S. Have Paid Maternity Leave?

Currently, the U.S. does not have mandatory paid parental leave. That means federal law does not guarantee that employees will get paid time off after welcoming a child. However, many Americans do qualify for paid parental leave because of state or employer policies.

State Policies

Several states have adopted their own paid leave programs, and many others have considered or are considering programs, so the number is continuing to grow.

At the time of publication, the following states have established their own paid parental leave programs:

  • California
  • New Jersey
  • Rhode Island
  • New York
  • District of Columbia
  • Washington
  • Massachusetts
  • Connecticut
  • Oregon

States manage their programs independently and have different rules for who qualifies for unpaid leave and when unpaid leave applies, but all programs use a state insurance model that employees and/or employers fund with payroll contributions.

Under the programs, wages are replaced up to a certain percentage and for a specified duration, which vary by state. Employers are not responsible for providing the wages, though they do have to comply with applicable state payroll laws. All programs are comprehensive and apply to employees beyond just new parents. Details on individual state family leave programs can be found here.

Employer Policies

There are many employers in the country that voluntarily offer paid leave for pregnant women and new parents. These policies vary greatly. Some employers offer weeks or months of parental leave that is paid at the employee's regular wage or salary. Other employers offer a program with paid time off, but at reduced pay. Some do not have a specific program for new parents, but birth mothers are able to use short-term disability benefits to take paid time off.

Unfortunately, as of February 2022 only about 20% of American workers have access to paid family leave through their employers, while 40% have access to short-term disability insurance, according to the National Partnership for Women & Families. However, according to a 2018 Survey on Absence and Disability Management, the number of employers surveyed who said they offered paid parental leave increased by 15% from 2015 to 2018.

Federal Employee Policy

A federal law was recently enacted that provides up to 12 weeks of paid parental leave for qualifying federal employees around the time of the birth, adoption, or foster care placement of a child on or after October 1, 2020. The bipartisan policy applies to 2.1 million civilian federal workers and it is the first update to federal family leave policy since the Family and Medical Leave Act was enacted in 1993.

City Policies

Several dozen cities and counties throughout the nation have laws that require paid leave for municipal workers. Details on individual municipal family leave programs can be found here.

Does the U.S. Have Unpaid Parental Leave?

Federal law requires employers with 50 or more employees to allow qualifying employees up to 12 weeks of unpaid parental leave that can be taken up to a year after the birth or adoption of a child. The Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) requires employers to give parents their jobs back (or similar jobs with similar benefits) after they return from leave. The FMLA is considered comprehensive and applies to employees beyond new parents. View the FLMA fact sheet here.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 89% of American workers had access to unpaid family leave in March 2018. Unfortunately, many workers who qualify for unpaid leave cannot afford to take it. Studies suggest almost half of workers who qualify for unpaid leave but decline taking it do so because of money, and two-thirds of workers who do take unpaid leave said they experience financial trouble as a result.

What Countries Have Paid Maternity Leave?

There are 193 countries in the United Nations, and just a few do not mandate paid parental leave, including: New Guinea, Suriname, a few island nations in the South Pacific, and the U.S.

According to data from the Pew Research Center, the U.S. is the only country among the 41 nations that make up the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) and the European Union (EU) that doesn't mandate paid parental leave.

Of the other 40 nations which have mandatory paid leave, the shortest amount of paid leave required is about two months. The country of Estonia provides workers with more than a year and a half of paid leave after becoming new parents. The following countries provide more than a year of paid time off:

  • Bulgaria
  • Hungary
  • Japan
  • Lithuania
  • Austria
  • Slovakia
  • Latvia
  • Norway
  • Slovenia

Notably, the majority of mandatory paid leave in half of the 40 counties is maternity leave, but 34 of the counties also have paid leave specifically for fathers. The length of time for paid paternity leave varies greatly.

In many counties, maternity leave is paid at the employee's regular salary, while other countries pay only a portion of the regular salary. But the OECD reports that a majority of the 40 developed countries pay new moms at least half of their salary while on leave.

Some developed countries such as France and the U.K. began creating or expanding paid maternity leave as far back as the end of World War II to encourage women to stay in the workforce.

Canada's Parental Leave Program

Canada has a parental leave policy with both a job protection and benefits component. The paid parental leave program that is part of the country's employment insurance plan. To qualify, employees must have been working for a certain length of time, and it can apply to one or both parents.

A pregnant woman or new mother can get paid maternity leave of up to 15 weeks, then either parent can take 35 weeks of paid parental leave after the birth or adoption of a child. Under the program, employees are paid 55% of their average weekly insurable wage, up to a cap that is determined based on income.

Canada also mandates that employers allow qualifying new mothers to take up to 63 weeks of unpaid leave with job protection.

What Is the Future of Paid Parental Leave in the U.S.?

Over the past several decades, the U.S. workforce has changed significantly. Today, both parents work in nearly half of two-parent households, and the majority of women with young children work outside of the home. As a result, there is a greater push than ever for mandatory paid parental leave in the U.S., and not just maternity leave, but policies that also support fathers, adoptive parents, and parents in non-traditional families such as same-sex families.

Many bills have been introduced in Congress that would create a paid parental leave program. Most well-known is the Family and Medical Insurance Leave Act, or FAMILY Act, which was first introduced in 2013 and has been reintroduced several times. The plan would pay qualifying employees up to 66% of their wages for 12 weeks (up to $1,000 per week). A 0.2% payroll tax would be used to fund the program.

The Benefits of Paid Leave

Supporters of paid parental leave say that there are economic and health benefits to paid parental leave. Families and children, in particular, benefit from the programs, studies show.

Benefits of paid parental leave, according a report from CNN on relevant studies:

According to the National Partnership for Women and Families, paid leave benefits families by making them more economically secure and better able to manage work and family responsibilities.

Families and children aren't the only ones to benefit from paid parental leave, the National Partnership reports. Employers, including small businesses, have also benefited in the states that have implemented paid leave programs. For example, paid leave was found to increase employee morale and reduce expensive turnover.

The Costs of Paid Parental Leave

One of the biggest arguments against paid parental leave programs, unsurprisingly, has to do with the price tag. The new policy providing paid parental leave for the nation's largest employer, the federal government, is estimated to cost $3.3 billion over five years, so paid leave for all would be expensive.

Even when the program is funded by taxpayers, as it is in many states, skeptics say employees suffer by taking home less pay and getting less choice. Instead, employers should be motivated to create their own programs with tax cuts and other policies targeted at economic growth, opponents of mandatory paid leave say.

Additionally, skeptics argue that mandatory paid leave would involve too much government oversight.

Public Opinion and Political Views

The Pew Research Center reports that a majority of Americans support paid parental leave, with 82% saying that mothers should have paid maternity leave and 69% saying that fathers should have paid paternity leave. Pew also found that most Americans think employers, instead of the federal or state government should foot the bill for paid time off, though there is no consensus on whether paid leave should be mandated by the government or employers should be able to decide to offer the benefits.

Democrats have long-supported the idea of mandatory paid parental leave, and some Republicans also came out in support of the benefits, including President Trump, who first proposed six weeks paid family leave while on the campaign trail in 2016 but ultimately failed to deliver.

While the U.S. remains the last "wealthy" country without paid maternity leave, change could soon be coming. Details — like how to fund a national program — still need to be worked out, but advocates say the states with their own policies have provided a roadmap to success. Paid leave for all federal employees could be the first step toward paid leave for all.

In the meantime, expectant parents should make sure to know what leave options are available to them, either through their state, their employer, or through the FLMA.

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