New York (AP) - Americans often take pride in ways their nation differs from others. But one distinction - lack of a nationwide policy of paid maternity leave - is cited in a new report as an embarrassment that could be redressed at low cost and without harm to employers
"Despite its enthusiasm about `family values,' the
Human Rights Watch, based in
The report, "Failing its Families," says at least 178 countries have national laws guaranteeing paid leave for new mothers, while the handful of exceptions include the U.S., Swaziland and Papua New Guinea. More than 50 nations, including most Western countries, also guarantee paid leave for new fathers.
Past efforts in Congress to enact a paid family leave law have floundered, drawing opposition from business lobbyists who say it would be a burden on employers.
Instead, there is the 1993 Family and Medical Leave Act, which enables workers with new children or seriously ill family members to take up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave. By excluding companies with fewer than 50 employees, it covers only about half the work force, and many who are covered cannot afford to take unpaid leave.
"Leaving paid leave to the whim of employers means millions of workers are left out, especially low-income workers who may need it most," said Walsh, citing federal estimates that only 10 percent of private-sector workers have paid family leave benefits.
With prospects for federal legislation considered dim for now, advocates of family-friendly workplace policies hope for progress at the state level and are looking closely at
Both states have severe budget problems overall, but the leave programs - financed entirely through small payroll tax contributions by workers - are flourishing. Both offer six weeks of paid leave for workers taking time off to bond with a new child or to care for a seriously ill child, spouse or parent.
Human Rights Watch, which interviewed dozens of parents for its report, said lack of paid leave has numerous harmful consequences - fueling postpartum depression, causing mothers to give up breast-feeding early, forcing some families into debt or onto welfare.
Cathy Frazier of
The boy was born two months early, spent five weeks in the hospital, and remained in frail health after he went home. The couple said Cathy had to provide most of his care single-handedly while Joe was working long hours at a local public-access TV station.
"If Joe had been around, it would have been better," Cathy Frazier said in a telephone interview. "I might have gotten sick, but not like I was."
The depression was so severe that she was hospitalized for a week, and went into debt paying for therapy with a credit card because her insurance didn't cover it. Six years later, she said she still struggles with depression, taking medication and unsure about her prospects for accepting any job that would involve working outside her home.
Conversely, Jennifer Shankman of
"It helped me to not feel as stressed," said Shankman, who's now back at work as a youth camp director. "It made a big difference mentally."
The Human Rights Watch report urges other states to emulate
One possible beneficiary could be
In each state, some business leaders remain unenthusiastic, though there is no clamor to repeal the programs.
Michael Egenton, senior vice president of New Jersey Chamber of Commerce, said the impact had been relatively modest thus far. He attributed this to the recession and the desire of most workers to take paid leave only after conferring with their bosses to ensure the absence wouldn't be disruptive.
"With the tough economy, people are feeling, `I'm glad I have a job,'" he said. "We'll be interested in seeing where the program goes when the economy improves."
However, Eileen Applebaum of the Center for Economic and Policy Research, a liberal
Applebaum contended that business associations, rather than individual employers, were the main obstacle to paid-leave proposals in Congress and state legislatures.
"Employer associations in other countries help their companies be successful," she said. "In this country, employer associations largely exist to resist anything that might be good for workers."
In the European Union, paid parental leave varies from 14 weeks in
Ellen Bravo of the Family Values at Work Consortium, a 15-state network working for family-friendly policies, said the bid to expand paid leave in the
"Family values often end at the workplace door," she said. "What we're fighting for isn't just modest - it's meager compared to what other countries have."