parental leave

{Please allow me to first properly situate my soapbox}
There is a young Canadian couple that lives in our complex. They have two children, a 3 year old son and 6 month old daughter. Last night at the pool we got to talking while the kids splashed together in the shallow end. Not surprisingly (because so many people around us are), they are here for schooling:  both are doing postdoctoral fellowships at UNC in Pharmacology, with a focus on arthritis research. Tim asked if both their children were in the same daycare. “Well, they will be,” the mother explained. “I have been on maternity leave, and go back to work next week.” Turns out their fellowships are through the Canadian government, which means they are entitled to Canada’s parental leave laws which stipulate 6 months {and here’s the kicker} of  PAID maternity leave. For each child. Yes, you calculated that right. For one of her four years as a postdoctoral fellow the government paid her to stay home with her kids.

Our conversation got me thinking about Sweden. I read recently (which means within the last, oh, year or so) that they upped their parental leave to 16 months (at 80% pay), with 2 of those months required paternal leave (if the father does not take these 2 months, some of the paid parental leave is lost). Some political parties are even arguing that the leave should be split equally between mother and father.

What’s going on here? How can things be so skewed? Is that a fluke, Sweden and Canada? I decided to turn to the trusty interweb to get some answers about parental leave laws. {As disclaimer, this information comes largely from Wikipedia, but since I’m not writing a dissertation here I decided to run with it.} Here’s what I learned:

A large majority of countries provide more than 10 paid weeks maternity leave.

Central European countries are the most dedicated. In the Czech Rebublic, for example, it is standard that mothers take 3 years maternity leave, all the while supported by the state. In Estonia, mothers are entitled to 18 months of paid leave, starting up to 70 days before her due date. In the UK, all female employees are entitled to 52 weeks of maternity (or adoption) leave, 39 weeks of which is paid, rising to 52 weeks paid from April 2010, with the first six weeks paid at 90% of full pay and the remainder at a fixed rate. Most employers offer a more generous policy. A spouse or partner of the woman (including same-sex relationships {imagine that}) may request a two week paid (at a fixed rate) “paternity” leave.

Well, okay. But that’s Europe. Surely things are different elsewhere around the globe. Nope. While it’s true that in the Americas the situation is not quite as rosy, even in Bolivia women are entitled to 12 weeks paid at 100% of national minimum wage plus 70% of their earned wages above minimum wage. Guatemala, Mexico, Panama, Peru, Uruguay, Venezuela, Jamaica, Hatai, Hondorous (among others!) have at least some (if not all) maternity leave paid at 100%. Even in Zambia, Mali, Mozambique, Togo, Uganda, Tanzania, Burundi, Botswana (and again, the list goes on) there is, by law, some paid maternity leave. In Congo, for crying out loud, women get 14 weeks of 100% paid leave.

But here’s where it gets really good; guess how many nations have no national provision for parental (maternal or paternal) leave? Four. And guess who is one of them…yes. US.

As someone who is facing just 2 weeks of full time off (and only that with some serious arm twisting) and the knowledge that I will need to return to work full time when my little guy is just 2 months old, this makes my stomach churn. I had close to 4 months at home with Eleanor, and when I did go back to work it was part time which meant that I had all afternoon with her. And those morning hours she was with her dad, so I was comfortable going into the office each day (and, I might add, given that I only had four hours was more productive than I am most days lately).

Now, to be fair to UNC, I am entitled to 3 months of UNPAID maternity leave under the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA), but by taking this it means that I go off payroll, and thus loose my health insurance. Nice, huh? At least I have that choice. During her first pregnancy a friend of mine, a lawyer with a prestigious firm in town, was told that she could just pack up her office when she told them she was pregnant- her firm was small enough that her job was not protected under FMLA.

FMLA stipulates that anyone employed for at least 12 months by a business with a payroll of at least 50 may take 12 unpaid weeks and not lose their jobs. Many private companies (e.g. Bank of America Corp., Goldman Sachs Group Inc. and other big financial institutions) have  maternity leave with pay as a perquisite, most employers in the U.S. don’t provide the benefit. In fact, the number offering fully paid leave fell to 16 percent in 2008 from 27 percent in 1998 according to a survey by the New York-based Families and Work Institute.

Meanwhile social scientists and politicians are discuss (at least some of) the breakdown of our society as a result of the degradation of the family unit- things like divorce, two working parents, latch-key kids, and a lack of discipline of and interest in our children share the blame. But, do they seriously wonder why these things are happening? Now, obviously, paid parental leave will not solve all of these problems, and it will certainly not ensure that children are going to grow up in supportive and nurturing homes with engaged parents. But it will at least start to send the right message: “Parenting we, as a nation, value. It is something we value enough to help get your started on the long and bumpy road that is the rest of your life. We know it’s not much, but it’s something. And this thing you’re doing, parenting, is really important. So thank you.”

I mean really, wouldn’t that be nice?

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6 thoughts on “parental leave

  1. BofA is no joke – Matt got 3 months of Paternity leave (I can’t remember, but I believe it was full pay for the entire time) after Owen was born! It’s absolutely a perk that we know is rare and are absolutely thankful for!

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  2. We are dealing with similar stuff. Alli gets 10 weeks but unpaid. But since her company is tiny that is pretty good. I get 3 weeks paid but have to take them as soon as the kiddo is born. Not too bad but we had hoped for a little flex so I could be primary care giver at the end of Alli’s ten weeks and the boy could be a full 3 months before daycare. I suppose in many ways we have it okay considering the crappy possibilities in this country, bur honestly America has broken me. I am too confused by the hypocrisy and double standards between the small percentage of ultra rich and, well… Everyone else, to even really get upset anymore. I suppose that is what they want. Sigh.

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  3. One problem with the countries that offer great leave, though, is that they often have little in the way of affordable childcare for parents who *want* to work. It’s kind of a trade off. It would be nice to get both! Of course here in the US we kind of have neither, when it comes to affordability…

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    1. That is a great point, thanks for sharing the thought. Staying home when the baby is born is one thing, but having the option/ability to return to work and have *affordable quality* care for your child is something entirely different. Having both WOULD be great.

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  4. Kiyah-Are you sure about the health insurance bit? The following is from a DOL FMLA compliance guide:
    A covered employer is required to maintain group health insurance coverage, family coverage, for an employee on FMLA leaveon the same terms as if the employee continuedto work.
    Where appropriate, arrangements willneed to be made for employees taking unpaid FMLA leave to pay their share of health insurance premiums. For example, if the group health plan involves co-payments by the employer and the employee, an employee onunpaid FMLA leave must make arrangements to pay his or her normal portion of the insurance premiums to maintain insurance coverage, as must the employer. Such payments may be made under any arrangement voluntarily agreedto by the employer and employee.
    An employer’s obligation to maintain health benefits under FMLA stops ifand when an employee informs the employer of an intentnot to return towork at the end of the leave period, or if the employee fails to return to work when the FMLA leave entitlementis exhausted. The employer’s obligation also stops if the employee’s premium paymentis more than 30 days late and the employer has given the employee written notice at least 15days in advance advising that coverage will cease if payment is not received.
    In some circumstances,the employer may recover premiums itpaid tomaintain health insurance coverage for an employee who fails to return to work from FMLA leave.

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    1. Anon,Thank you for your email. I did not spend as much time researching this as I should, and thus I very well could be wrong; I was going off what I was told by my employers.
      Your email throws a new kink into things…although I might have the *right* to three months, I’m not sure how happy my boss(es) would be about it.

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