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U.S. Lags Behind In Support Of Working Mothers

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by Mary Elizabeth Dallas
April 12, 2011

Despite recent and well-publicized efforts advocating the accommodation of breastfeeding in the workplace, the United States (U.S.) lags far behind just about every other industrialized nation in its overall support for working parents. Although family values are often cited by politicians on Capitol Hill, a recent report from Human Rights Watch sheds some unfavorable light on the fact that across the U.S., there remains gross lack of support for working parents, including little or no paid family leave after childbirth or adoption, lingering employer reticence to offer breastfeeding support or flexible schedules, and workplace discrimination against new parents (especially mothers). Research reveals this reality delivers serious adverse health and financial effects on many families and hinders breastfeeding rates, while juggling work and family life takes a toll on how women perceive their role as a mother.

Working mothers and the obstacles they face
Overall, women comprise half of all U.S. workers, according to a 2010 Congressional report prepared by the Majority Staff of the Joint Economic Committee.

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) also reports that as of 2009, only a few countries, notably Canada and Sweden, had female labor force participation rates that were higher than the U.S. Meanwhile, the agency projects that by 2018 the women’s civilian-labor force will increase by 9 percent, to roughly 6.5 million.

More specifically, the BLS reveals labor force participation rates of mothers with children under age 18 surged from 47 percent in 1975 to 71 percent in 2008. Not surprisingly the agency notes that mothers with children older than 6 years are more likely to participate in the labor force than mothers with younger children. Nevertheless, in 2010 the BLS announced the labor force participation rate of mothers with children under 6 years old was 64 percent and a whopping 57 percent for mothers with infants under a year old.

The Congressional report concludes the role of women in the U.S. economy is critical, stating, “The future of the American economy depends on women’s work, both inside and outside the home.” Will real change come from such strong rhetoric?

Despite the documented growth and rising importance of women in the U.S. labor market, pregnant women and working mothers still face a number of obstacles in balancing their dual roles as professional and mother.

The February 2011 report from Human Rights Watch, which analyzed 190 countries, found that 178 guaranteed paid leave for new mothers. Nine were unclear about their maternity policies, and only three clearly offer no legal guarantee of paid maternity leave: Papua New Guinea, Swaziland, and the U.S. What is the glaring difference between the U.S. and these other two nations? America has the largest and most technologically powerful economy in the world, with a per capita Gross Domestic Product (GDP) of $47,400, according to the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) factbook.

Among the other findings of the Human Rights Watch report:

  • Overall, the lack of paid maternity leave forced mothers to give up breastfeeding early.
  • Parents in the U.S. report that having scarce or no paid leave contributed to delaying babies’ immunizations, postpartum depression, and other health problems.
  • Many parents who took unpaid leave went into debt and some were forced to seek public assistance.
  • American women reported that employer bias against working mothers derailed their careers.
  • Many same-sex parents were often denied even unpaid leave.

In the U.S. the federal statute, the Family Medical Leave Act of 1993 (FMLA), does entitle workers of covered employers up to 12 weeks of unpaid and job-protected leave for certain family and medical reasons, including the birth and care of a newborn child within one year of birth and the adoption or foster care of a child, according to the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL). To be eligible for leave under the law, however, an employee must have worked for their employer for a total of 12 months and must also have worked for a total of 1,250 hours or more in the previous 12 months. The employee also must work at a U.S. location where at least 50 other employees are based within 75 miles.

Due to the exclusion of small employers and short-tenure workers, about 40 percent of U.S. workers are not eligible for protection under the FMLA, according to the Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR). The Center believes American employers have not stepped in to fill the gap and finds that while about 60 percent of workers are eligible for FMLA-related leave, only about 25 percent of U.S. employers offer fully paid “maternity-related leave” of any duration, and 1 out of 5 U.S. employers offers no maternity-related leave of any kind, paid or unpaid. CEPR further argues that for many low- and middle-income families, unpaid leave is simply not an option; these families cannot afford the time away from work and are forced to take no leave at all.

In a 2009 report assessing parental leave policies in 21 countries, the group cites a 2000 Department of Labor survey over a 22-month period in 1999 and 2000 in which 3.5 million people in the U.S. needed leave for family or medical reasons but did not take it; almost 80 percent of those who did not take the leave said they just could not afford to do so.

How does the U.S. measure up?
The CEPR report identified four countries with leave policies that are strongest on both generosity and gender equality. These countries include Finland, Norway, Sweden, and Greece. Several others also offer parents generous options for paid family leave. Here is a rundown:

Country Total Weeks of Leave Weeks of Paid Leave
Sweden 163 47
Germany 170 47
Norway 150 44
Greece 60 34
Finland 48 32
Canada 52 28
Spain 156 27
Japan 58 26
Italy 69 25
France 156 22
Ireland 70 21
Denmark 52 20
Austria 116 16
New Zealand 54 14
The United Kingdom 80 13

Trailing behind the countries listed above, Switzerland offers just 14 weeks of maternity leave to care for a new child. Unlike the U.S. however, even Switzerland provides 11 weeks of paid leave.