What are the Problems with the United States Parental Leave System?

Updated on February 8, 2017
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NurseFlood is a self-proclaimed birth nerd with three babies and 8+ years of nursing experience, most of which is in women's health.

Bonding with baby

Bonding with babies is an important piece of parental leave.
Bonding with babies is an important piece of parental leave. | Source

The case against the United States "Maternity Leave" System

Parental leave is a short term absence from work immediately prior to and after child birth. Maternity leave is granted to new mothers to promote recovery from child birth and foster breastfeeding. Parental leave promotes and supports the bond between parent and child.

The following is an in depth look at the case against the United States parental leave system, as it stands.

Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993

The United States is the only industrialized country in the world without paid parental leave. The Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) has been in place since 1993. FMLA mandates 12 weeks of unpaid leave each year for parents of newborn or newly adopted children.

FMLA comes under fire due to it's scant length of time and not protviding any compensation during the period of unpaid maternity leave. The Act also does not universally cover working mothers. In order to qualify for FMLA, employees must work for an employer with 50 or more employees, have been employed for 12 months, and have worked at least 1,250 hours in those 12 months.

Impact of US maternity leave

Numerous studies have been done regarding length of maternity leave and both short and long term effects. There are a number of detrimental effects in returning to work at only 4-8 weeks postpartum:

  • It will significantly increase the cost of associated child care.
  • An additional week of maternity leave may reduce infant mortality rate.
  • A longer maternity leave will increase the length of breastfeeding.
  • Mothers who return to work prematurely are more likely to suffer from postpartum depression.
  • Policy experts link the imbalance between pay for men and women to the unavailability of paid maternity leave.
  • Almost 40% of American employees are not eligible for FMLA mandated leave due to <12 months of employment, <1250 hours per year, or <50 employees at their company.
  • The unpaid aspect of maternity care further widens the income gap between families who can afford to take unpaid leave and those who can't, directly impacting ability to bond with and care for their infants.

Do you think 12 weeks of unpaid leave is fair practice?

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Foreign Parental Leave comparisons

  • Poland, Vietnam, and Venezuela offer up to 6 months of paid maternity leave for their full salary.
  • Cuba, Chile, and Lithuania offers 18 weeks of paid leave at full salary.
  • Norway offers 35 weeks of maternity leave with full salary.
  • Croatian mothers can focus on bonding with and breastfeeding their baby for a whopping 30 weeks, while receiving their normal income.

Many countries offer reduced cost or even free childcare along with breastfeeding facilities for working mothers. These maternity benefits are often paid through social insurance or a combination of social insurance and employer.

Feel like Dads get the short end of the stick?

  • In Croatia, fathers receive 120 days of parental leave at 100% income.
  • Fathers in Korea receive up to a year of paid paternity leave at 31 percent of their income.
  • In Japan, they also get a year with a new baby and 58.4% of their income.
  • French Dads get 28 weeks and about 1/4 of their income.
  • Norwegian fathers receive 14 weeks of paid paternity leave and a whopping 91% of their salary!


International Labour Organization (ILO)

The ILO is a nonprofit organization that promotes employee rights across the globe. The minimum maternity leave that they recommend is 14 weeks at at least 66% of her normal income. The ILO actually believes that 18 weeks of maternity leave is ideal, while 26 weeks is complete appropriate.

In 2014, all but 3 of the 185 countries and territories with parental leave data, provide some sort of cash benefits to new parents. Guess who tops that list? Oman, Papua New Guinea, and, of course, the United States!

Political Forces at Play

Will we ever see an improvement in maternity benefits and parental leave for new parents? It's an issue creeping to the forefront of our political races.

The biggest issue? Lobbyists bankroll large amounts of money to prevent a better system and to place roadblocks in the path of a parental leave improvement. Large companies feel that an improvement in maternity benefits would cost them a lot of money, labor, and issues.

As this battle continues on, it's important to educate yourself on the subject and follow the ever changing news.

Interested in learning about child birth and what to expect?

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