US way behind on family-friendly policies

Feb 02 2007 by Brian Amble Print This Article

The United States lags far behind every other developed economy when it comes to family-oriented workplace policies such as maternity leave, paid sick leave and support for breast-feeding, a new report has found.

The study released by Harvard and McGill University researchers argues that even relatively poor countries around the world provide workplace protections that millions of Americans can only dream of.

Despite excelling in policies protecting individuals from discrimination, the report finds that the U.S. lags dramatically behind all other high-income countries, and even behind many middle- and low-income countries, when it comes to protecting Ė or even acknowledging - the family lives of workers.

Yet as far as policies that ensure an equitable right to work for all racial and ethnic groups, regardless of gender, age or disability, the U.S. compares well to many other countries.

The report also says that U.S. social insurance policies have had marked success in lowering the poverty rates of the elderly, although they have been less successful than other affluent nations in protecting children from poverty.

In addition, the U.S. is also one of 117 countries guaranteeing a pay premium for overtime work. In fact, the U.S. rate of 150 percent (time-and-a-half) for overtime is near the top in the range of guaranteed payments. Only eight countries mandate more.

But on the flip side, the U.S. is one of only five countries out of 173 in the survey that does not guarantee any form of paid maternity leave, along with Lesotho, Liberia, Swaziland and Papua New Guinea.

Some 65 countries also offer fathers either paid paternity leave or a right to paid parental leave; 31 of these countries offer 14 or more weeks of paid leave. The U.S. guarantees fathers neither paid paternity nor paid parental leave.

More glaringly still, the U.S. is one of only a handful of countries that fail to mandate statutory paid sick leave. At least 145 countries provide paid sick days, with 127 providing a week or more annually and more than 79 countries providing benefits for at least 26 weeks or until recovery.

The U.S. provides unpaid leave only through the Family and Medical Leave Act, which does not cover all workers, while California is the only state to have passed legislation mandating paid sick leave.

Similarly, 137 countries require employers to provide paid annual leave. The U.S. does not, and neither does it have a maximum work week length or a limit on mandatory overtime per week. U.S. workers are not even entitled to a day off each week.

In other words, while the overwhelming majority of the world has a right to at least three weeks annual leave and sick leave, workers in the U.S. receive not one statutory day paid leave.

The right to breastfeed is something else ignored in the U.S. even though breastfeeding is proven to reduce infant mortality. Some 107 other countries protect working women's right to breastfeed and in at least 73 of these, the breaks are paid.

"More countries are providing the workplace protections that millions of Americans can only dream of," said the study's lead author, Dr Jody Heymann, founder of the Harvard-based Project on Global Working Families and Director of the McGill Institute for Health and Social Policy.

"The U.S. has been a proud leader in adopting laws that provide for equal opportunity in the workplace, but our work/family protections are among the worst. It's time for change."

Debra L. Ness, President of the National Partnership for Women & Families, said that the report should serve as a wake-up call to Congress and the Administration

"We need to expand the Family & Medical Leave Act, adopt paid leave nationwide, and pass the Healthy Families Act. This is a powerful and important study, and we intend to share it with lawmakers at the federal and state levels," she added.