Commentary: Paid parental leave should be a priority

When it comes to family leave policies, few rich countries are more backward than the United States.

A recent study by Harvard and McGill University researchers found that this country placed dead last in providing parental leave and other supportive work conditions when compared to the world's most economically successful countries.

The study, called Raising the Global Floor: Dismantling the Myth that We Can't Afford Good Working Conditions for Everyone, found that prosperous countries such as Japan, Canada and Germany provide an array of protections, including paid sick time, paid leave to care for a sick child and guaranteed vacation time. In many of those countries, paid leave for new mothers is six months or more.

The study also found that many developing countries provide these protections. China, India, and 175 other countries provide paid maternity leave. Mexico mandates six months of paid sick leave. Kenya offers paid paternal leave. We don't guarantee any of this. When American workers receive paid sick days or paid maternity leave, they owe it to the generosity of their employers.

I never really thought about these issues until I became pregnant. When I realized how little protection I had, I was floored. I was paid the equivalent of just under four weeks of salary and guaranteed the three months of unpaid leave mandated by the federal government. Anything beyond that was by the grace of my supervisors.

Fortunately, my editors did everything in their power to support the time I spent with my son and protected my job when I took an extended unpaid leave. They didn't have to. In so many other countries, I wouldn't have needed to ask. Why does it have to be this way? Why do Americans accept such paltry benefits?

For Jody Heymann, the study's co-author, the answer to that question still eludes her even after years of research. "It is unfathomable," she said. "A lot of people in the U.S. don't realize that most of the world has a right to these things."

The 57 million U.S. workers who don't have a single paid sick day each year are too busy trying to survive to take time to march on Washington or write their congressional representatives. Their unforgiving work conditions virtually guarantee that most of them have no time for the political arena.

For the rest of us who have some sick time, vacation and parental leave -- even though it falls short of what workers in other countries enjoy -- perhaps we're so steeped in a self-abnegating, workaholic culture that we feel guilty for wanting more. What else can explain why millions of voters mobilize over abortion rights, taxes and immigration reform but don't muster equivalent outrage over the government's failure to provide basic family protections?

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