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Obama: US Should Have Paid Maternity Leave

The United States is the only developed nation, and only one of four countries in the world, without paid maternity leave. (Katie Tegtmeyer/Flickr Creative Commons)

The United States is the only developed nation, and only one of four countries in the world, without paid maternity leave. (Katie Tegtmeyer/Flickr Creative Commons)

The United States is the only nation in the industrialized world without paid maternity leave, and President Barack Obama wants to change that.

The glaring disparity between the US and the rest of the world, where new parents enjoy as many as two years off with pay, concerns President Obama. The president said America is “way behind the times” in not offering such leave.

“It’s time to change that,” Obama said on Monday at the White House Summit on Working Families.

“There is only one developed country in the world that does not offer paid maternity leave, and that is us,” Obama noted. “And that is not the list you want to be on, on your lonesome.”

“Family leave, child care, flexibility– these aren’t frills, they’re basic needs,” the president said. “They shouldn’t be bonuses, they should be the bottom line.”

“Many women can’t even get a paid day off to give birth– now that’s a pretty low bar,” lamented Obama, adding that, “if France can figure this out, we can figure this out.”

French mothers receive 16 weeks’ maternity leave at 100 percent pay, rising to as many as 26 weeks at full pay for their third child.

Not only is the US the only developed nation that does not offer women any paid maternity leave, it is one of only four nations in the entire world without it. Three small and desperately poor countries– Lesotho, Swaziland and Papua New Guinea, which have average annual incomes ranging from $1,300 to $2,800– are the others.

Paid maternity leave around the world ranges from 12 weeks with 100 percent pay in Mexico and India to more than a year’s leave in numerous European nations. Estonian mothers get two years off. Additionally, many European countries also extend two to three years of protected maternity leave, meaning new mothers can take a leave of absence from work to care for their children without fear of losing their jobs. The US offers a maximum of 12 weeks’ protected leave for new moms.

In addition to paid maternity leave, many developed nations also provide paid paternity leave. Fathers in Austria, Germany, Luxembourg and South Korea enjoy at least one year of paid parental leave, although they do not receive their full salaries. In Austria, fathers receive paid leave for three years.

Obama praised California, New Jersey and Rhode Island for implementing limited state benefits for new parents.

The president has introduced six weeks’ paid leave for White House staff members who have children, fall ill or are caring for sick relatives. He also supports the proposed Federal Employees Paid Parental Leave Act.

President Obama asserted that providing paid parental leave would be good for the US economy and competitiveness.

“When… talented, hard-working people are forced to choose between work and family, something’s wrong,” he said on Monday. “Other countries are making it easier for people to have both. We should too, if we want American businesses to compete and win in the global economy.”

But it is business– especially Big Business– that stands in the way of the United States catching up to the rest of the world in providing paid parental leave.

Jennifer Barrera, a policy advocate for the California Chamber of Commerce, said that state’s very limited leave program “creates a significant administrative burden on employers, increases costs and minimizes the ability of companies to expand hiring and create new jobs.”

Despite their professed enthusiasm for “family values,” most US conservatives are loth to support paid parental leave, which many view as a form of “socialism.” Backed and funded by powerful corporate lobbying groups like the US Chamber of Commerce and the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), Republican and “fiscally conservative” Democrat lawmakers have repeatedly attempted to defeat paid parental leave measures at the national and state level.

Rep. Darrell Issa (R-CA), speaking in opposition to the proposed Federal Employees Paid Parental Leave Act, said that extending such benefits to government workers could lead to a “baby boom” among federal employees, who “could have one adoption or one foster child per year, resulting in every year… the husband and wife, if they are both federal workers, would take four weeks off with pay, because they have simply taken in a new foster child.”

Still, progressive lawmakers are forging ahead with efforts to introduce paid family leave in the United States. Last December, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) and Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-CT) introduced legislation seeking to create a national paid parental leave program. The Family Medical and Insurance Leave Act would provide up to 12 weeks’ paid leave at two-thirds’ pay.

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