U.S. behind the world on parental leave: report

NEW YORK Wed Feb 23, 2011 4:20pm EST

Mothers participate in a demonstration in front of a clothing store in a shopping mall in Montreal January 19, 2011. REUTERS/Christinne Muschi

Mothers participate in a demonstration in front of a clothing store in a shopping mall in Montreal January 19, 2011.

Credit: Reuters/Christinne Muschi

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NEW YORK (Reuters) - The United States is decades behind the rest of the world in parental leave policy, a Human Rights Watch report said on Wednesday.

Of the 190 countries studied in the report, 178 guaranteed paid leave for new mothers and nine were unclear about their maternity policies. Just three countries clearly offer no legal guarantee of paid maternity leave -- Papua New Guinea, Swaziland and the United States.

"Being an outlier is nothing to be proud of in a case like this," said Janet Walsh, deputy women's rights director of Human Rights Watch and the author of the report.

"The U.S. is actually missing out by failing to ensure that all workers have access to paid family leave," she said. "Countries that have these programs show productivity gains, reduced turnover costs, and health care savings. We can't afford not to guarantee paid family leave under law - especially in these tough economic times."

The report, which also includes interviews with 64 American parents, examines the financial, emotional and medical impact of having inadequate or nonexistent medical leave and inflexible employers.

The U.S. lacks both paid maternity leave and accommodations for breast-feeding mothers, but has more than its share of workplace discrimination against new parents, the report said.

"Around the world, policymakers understand that helping workers meet their work and family obligations is good public policy," Walsh said. "It's time for the U.S. to get on board with this trend."

Roughly half of all Americans are covered by the federal Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), which allows employees with newborn children to take up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave. The Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that only 11 percent of American employees have the option of taking paid medical leave.

"Leaving paid leave to the whim of the employers means millions of workers are left out, especially low-income workers who may need it most," Walsh said in a statement.

Only two U.S. states -- California and New Jersey -- have public paid leave insurance programs.

"Despite its enthusiasm about 'family values', the U.S. is decades behind other countries in ensuring the well-being of working families," Walsh said.

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