America is famous for providing some of the least generous benefits in the developed world for private sector employees. Benefits are largely left at the behest of employers and these can comprise a broad spectrum, from the highly charitable to the most spartan. In fact, when it comes to parental rights, a recent UN report indicated that the United States is one of only 3 countries, along with Papua New Guinea and Oman, that does not require universal paid maternity leave. And that’s not even mentioning the 78 countries that also require paid paternity leave.
It has always perplexed me why American moms (and dads) have not demanded this benefit before? A 2013 YouGov study* indicated that the notion of paid parental leave is actually quite popular. Yet, it has simply never been an issue that comes up during discussion at the water cooler. Ever. Interestingly, a lot more of my international contacts have inquired about this situation than my domestic ones.
I don’t know what drives this seeming lack of interest in the topic but I venture to guess that it has traditionally not been well received due to the hard-charging US work ethos. As Americans, we tend to pride ourselves on hard work and independence, and in many cases, consider substantial benefits (such as generous vacation days, etc.) as a sign of lack of commitment or, even worse, pure laziness.
Similar to healthcare coverage prior to the recent reform, laws covering maternity leave in the United States are comprised of a hotchpotch of diverse state and federal regulations which at once overlap and simultaneously leave gaping holes. While the US is the only developed country that does not require paid maternity leave, new mothers are entitled to 12 weeks of unpaid leave under FMLA, the Family and Medical Leave Act. A handful of states — California, Rhode Island and New Jersey** — also require employers to continue to pay a substantial portion of the mother’s salary throughout her maternity leave. Many new parents supplement this with short-term disability, vacation days, paid sick days and unpaid leave (whether pregnancy should be described as a ‘disability’ at all is a topic for another discussion.)
It may only be a slight breeze today but demographic trends suggest that the winds of change will be upon us in the near future. America’s workforce has dramatically changed in recent years. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, women now compose, for the first time in history, more than 50% of US workers. In addition, millennials will soon be the largest age demographic in the entire workforce. These two converging trends, along with the slow but consistent rise of women in the management ranks, should force us to reconsider the issue of paid parental leave.
To me, it is not a coincidence that both President Obama, as well as potential/definite future candidate Hillary Clinton, recently took up this topic. (I happen to believe that this will evolve into the major theme of her presidential run and will come to define her presidency, if she does indeed become president.)
The key question that remains unanswered is whether employers will support or oppose universal paid parental leave. The implications for employers are considerate, as they will likely have to carry a significant portion of the costs. As is always true in our vibrant and often chaotic democracy, opinions on this subject will vary wildly (and loudly.) However, the rise of women in the workforce, along with a fresh perspective brought by working millennials, suggests to me that employers may be less resistant to the concept than perhaps in the past. It is quite possible that the era of unpaid parental leave in the United States will soon come to an end.
What do you think? Is it time to follow the rest of the world? Will the increasing role of women in management mean that employers will support paid parental leave? Will the millennial generation’s perspective on work-life balance shape the debate? I’d love to hear your opinions on this matter.