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The shocking truth:

The U.S. is the only high-income nation not to have paid maternity leave, while almost all middle- and low-income countries offer it, too,” says Jody Heymann, author of Raising the Global Floor: Dismantling the Myth That We Can’t Afford Good Working Conditions for Everyone. “The exceptions include Swaziland, Papua New Guinea—and us.”

Anyone who has spent 5 seconds examining the “benefits” that are offered by law in this country already knows they are a heaping pile of hot dog dash. We’ve all heard stories of friends and relatives in other countries who receive a lot more help from their governments. Romania’s practically a third-world country and yet they offer nearly a year of paid leave to new mothers. 

As someone who is thinking about having a baby in the next 2–10 years,  I  decided to talk to an HR rep in my office. The benefits are pretty disheartening. Actually I’m wondering if the term “benefits” is an accurate one.

For the first phase of these “benefits,” I would have to use two weeks of my vacation time before short-term disability would kick in.  Then, while on short-term disability, I’d only be paid 50 percent of my pay for one meager month. That’s all. That’s it. One month, 50 percent. Of course the HR rep tried to console me with the fact that by using FMLA I can stay home for up to six months. Unpaid, of course. Let’s be realistic: that’s not an option. Plus the firm doesn’t look compassionate simply because it offers these six months. It’s the FMLA law; they have to! Then she also tried to tell me that I can stockpile my vacation time and use that for full pay while I’m on maternity leave. That means no vacation time for me, for a year. Not for a doctor’s appointment, not to take a day off because a family member is in town, not to miss a day over the holidays, nothing. And once again, the individual gets shafted while the company loses nothing. And yet I’m supposed to be thankful for parts of this arrangement?

Since when did we become a society of sheep who glumly nod while taking our crumbs? We hear news like this, shrug, and murmur, “Well, dum dee dum, it sure could be worse. At least I have a job.”  Wake up! It could also be a hell of a lot better! And my company could afford it. My company is on FORTUNE magazine’s list of “100 Best Companies to Work For” in America. You’d think providing basic maternity benefits would be a factor in that breakdown. Apparently how well we treat our new parents isn’t a factor in how GREAT! a company really is.

This isn’t merely a self-pity post. As a national problem, this is more than a personal point of frustration. This issue was just evaluated in a 90-page report, Failing its Families: Lack of Paid Leave and Work-Family Supports in the U.S., commissioned by the Human Rights Watch. Here is a sampling of some of the most egregious comparisons:

At least 178 countries have national laws that guarantee paid leave for new mothers, and more than 50 also guarantee paid leave for new fathers. More than 100 countries offer 14 or more weeks of paid leave for new mothers, including Australia, Canada, and the United Kingdom. The 34 members of the Organization for Economic Co-Operation and Development (OECD), among the world’s most developed countries, provide on average 18 weeks of paid maternity leave, with an average of 13 weeks at full pay.

However, for workers in America, it’s a much different story.

The federal Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) enables U.S. workers with new children or family members with serious medical conditions to take unpaid  job-protected leave, but it covers only about half  the workforce. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, only 11 percent of civilian workers (and 3 percent of the lowest-income workers) have paid family leave benefits. Roughly two-thirds of civilian workers have some paid sick leave, but only about a fifth of low-income workers do.  Several studies have found that the number of employers voluntarily offering paid family leave is declining.

Better family leave policies benefit everyone! From the Human Rights Watch report: “Parents said that having scarce or no paid leave contributed to delaying babies’ immunizations, postpartum depression and other health problems, and caused mothers to give up breastfeeding early. Many who took unpaid leave went into debt and some were forced to seek public assistance.” 

Let’s be honest. Once again, the wealth stratification in this country hurts lower-income workers the most. Taking an unpaid leave is not a realistic option for people who are already struggling to make ends meet. Putting newborns in daycare at such a young age is also the most expensive of all child care because they require such vigilant, round-the-clock attention. The fact that one of the greatest nations in the world gets away with such base inhumanity toward its most innocent and economically challenged citizens is reprehensible.

In the spirit of my blog, I want to point out problems, think about what could improve the situation, and then give people an opportunity to do something about it. We can all sit around and bitch about the government but that doesn’t change anything. Next time you hear someone criticizing their company’s policies or the state of maternity/paternity leave in America, encourage them to get vocal. Seize the power of the pen.

First, you can sign this petition (calling for legislation that would support a national paid leave insurance program for new parents) sponsored by the National Partnership for Women and Families.  The magazine Working Mothers advocates on this platform. According to its website: “Working Mother is launching a four-year campaign to improve matters. Our goal is ambitious: to ensure paid parental leave is available to all U.S. workers by 2015, our 30th anniversary year.” The magazine offers a yearly list of the Working Mother 100 Best Companies. All listed companies offer paid maternity leave, and three-quarters of them also provide paid paternity leave and offer adoption leave.

Second, send a letter to your state and national representatives. Carolyn Maloney, an N.Y. representative has sponsored a bill to expand FMLA to include a percentage of paid parental leave. The bill never gets anywhere!! You can’t just sit around and be outraged. Do something with your passion. Tell your representatives that you want paid parental leave.

Third, share this issue with others. Most people never look into the policy until it’s too late.  Lastly, advocate for change at your company and with others.  I work in a male dominated company. It’s never going to magically occur to any of them that our policy is insufficient. I will be sending a letter to HR and to other members in the top tier of management. Maybe it won’t get anywhere. That’s a real possibility. However, I refuse to swallow this bad news, bemoan my plight, and throw in the towel. There is always something you can do! If I can’t incite change that results in a better situation for myself, maybe a new policy in the future can help someone else.

Wouldn’t paid parental leave benefit millions of us? If we can come together as a cohesive voting bloc, we could get real results!

On a lighter note: Have you seen the clip on The Daily Show where Jon Stewart addresses the issue of maternity leave? It’s called “Lactate Intolerance” and it’s  a must-see. He highlights a serious issue and does it with facts, grace, and humor.  Check it out here

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