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Paid Parental Leave Sorely Lacking Across the United States

Making It Work for Working Mothers

International Women’s Day will be celebrated across the globe on March 8, marking both achievements in gender equity that have been made, as well as work that still needs to be done to ensure a safe and equitable future for girls around the world.

International Women’s Day began in the early 1900s as a way to fight for women’s rights to work and vote, and end gender discrimination. The last century has undeniably seen a great deal of progress for women’s rights domestically and internationally, but there is still one area where the United States lags far behind the rest of the industrialized world—paid parental leave.

When Australia began their Paid Parental Leave Scheme last year, the United States became the only member of the 34-country Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, or OECD, that does not offer some form of paid leave to working parents after the birth or adoption of a child.

Dual-earner households are the most common form of household organization in both the United States and the majority of OECD countries, and in all OECD countries, including the United States, women spend at least twice as many hours providing unpaid care-work to children and other family members as men.

While all other OECD countries have family organizations that are somewhat similar—with working mothers who also do most of the unpaid care work—the United States stands alone in failing to enact paid leave to help women balance their dual responsibilities.

Presently the United States only provides unpaid leave to new parents, and not all employees are covered. The Family Medical Leave Act, or FMLA, passed in 1993, provides workers with unpaid, job-protected leave for up to 12 weeks in order to bond with a new child after birth or adoption, to provide care for a seriously ill family member, or to recover from their own serious illness. To qualify individuals must be employed within an organization of 50 or more workers within a 75-mile radius, have been at their current job for at least 12 months, and have worked a minimum of 1,250 hours within that time period.

While the Family Medical Leave Act was an important piece of legislation, its relatively stringent eligibility requirements exclude more than half of public-sector workers. This is not because caregivers do not work, but rather because many American workers no longer work full time for the same employer continuously. Many lower-income workers are employed in multiple part-time jobs, and more than a third of young parents have been with their current employer for less than a year, with even higher rates for nonwhites.

Nearly three-quarters of employees with an annual family income of more than $100,000 are covered by the FMLA. Yet less than 40 percent of lower-wage workers whose total family income is less than $20,000 per year are even eligible for unpaid leave—meaning that those who are the least able to afford to outsource care-work are also the least likely to have coverage for leave to provide the care themselves.

American women now make up half of all workers on payrolls, and women’s labor-force participation is not likely to decrease. While we have made great strides in women’s rights in the last century, paid family and medical leave sadly remains one area where we are lagging behind the rest of the developed world.

Sarah Jane Glynn is an Economic Policy Analyst at the Center for American Progress.

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