Congress is now considering four weeks of paid family and medical leave, up from the 12 weeks originally proposed in the Democrats’ spending plan. If the plan becomes law, the United States will no longer be one of six countries in the world – and the only rich country – without any form of paid national leave.
But that would still be an outlier. Of the 185 countries that offer paid leave to new mothers, only one, Eswatini (formerly known as Swaziland), offers less than four weeks. Of the 174 countries that offer paid time off for a personal health problem, only 26 offer four weeks or less, according to data from the World Policy Analysis Center at the University of California at Los Angeles.
Four weeks would also be significantly less than the 12 weeks of paid parental leave granted to federal workers in the United States, and less than the leave that was enacted in nine states and the District of Columbia.
Paid time off is part of the Democrats’ giant budget proposal, which includes other family policies such as child and senior care. They are trying to cut to an amount acceptable to West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin and Arizona Senator Kyrsten Sinema, whose votes are needed to pass it. For paid holidays, reducing the number of weeks is a simple way to lower the price.
Some time off is better than nothing, researchers say, but evidence from around the world suggests that four weeks is too little to reap the full benefits.
“When you look at other countries, there is evidence of what people need and what is doable,” said Jody Heymann, founding director of the Policy Center and distinguished professor of public health and public affairs at UCLA. “And according to these two measures, 12 weeks is a modest amount, and anything less is grossly insufficient. The rest of the world, including low income countries, has found a way to do it. “
Globally, the average paid maternity leave is 29 weeks and the average paid paternity leave is 16 weeks, according to data from the center.
However, there is one element of the paid leave proposal that would put the United States at the forefront internationally: its very broad definition of family and caregiving. It would cover care for all types of loved ones, including in-laws, domestic partners and people who are “the equivalent” of the family.
About half of the countries allow care leave for sick children. Thirty-nine percent of countries allow it for adult parents such as spouses or parents. Among the countries which provide for family health care leave, only 13 define the broad family, including grandparents or other relatives. Even then, there are sometimes restrictions, such as proving that the person in need of care is dying.
Globally, 107 countries offer fathers parental leave, more than half, and 47 offer more than four weeks. Many rich countries offer more than 12 weeks. Twenty, including Japan, Canada and Sweden, have options for more than a year.
For supporters of paid leave in the United States, the broad definition of caregiving has been a key request. “We have always fought for a definition of family that reflects what American families really look like, including the chosen family,” said Lelaine Bigelow, vice president of congressional relations at the National Partnership for Women and Families. “It has been an important pillar for us for a long time. “
Existing family leave policies in the United States already have a broad definition of caregiving, in large part because the country offered leave so late. Many countries began paid maternity leave in the 1920s. The American leave program – unpaid and lasting 12 weeks, for about half of workers – began in 1993. At this point, the standards gender had evolved and it was common for mothers to work and for men to look after children or parents. Unpaid leave covers people looking after babies; spouses, parents or sick children; or their own medical conditions.
Paid leave is rarely fully paid anywhere; the salary is generally a percentage of the regular salary up to a certain maximum. All over the world, paid holidays are generally financed by social insurance, through taxes or contributions from employers and workers. States with paid vacation have a similar system.
The federal plan in Congress is constrained by the rules of a budget process called reconciliation, and would be paid for, along with other safety net spending, with general revenue, perhaps from a billionaire tax.
Democrats are considering other options to make paid time off less expensive. These include making it expire after five years, hoping it would be popular enough for lawmakers to renew it. Another idea is to make it permanent but with less than four weeks off. Also on the table is the control of resources: low-wage workers would get paid time off, but not others.
Of those who take unpaid leave in the United States, just over half do so for their own health concerns. The United States is one of 11 countries that do not offer paid sick leave. Of the countries that do, 132 offer three months or more, and 62 offer one year or more if needed.
Many people need more than four weeks. Recovery after major surgery usually takes at least six weeks; recovery from a heart attack may take several months; and cancer treatment often lasts six months or more.
Short-term disability insurance pays for medical leave in some cases, but only about half of workers qualify. And women, workers of color, and low-income Americans are less likely to have it.
Research on maternity leave suggests that between three and six months is ideal. For birth mothers, recovery typically takes at least six to eight weeks, and maternal health also improves when fathers take time off. Research shows that babies continue to benefit from being at home with a parent during the first semester – to bond; increasing immunization and breastfeeding rates; and the decrease in hospitalizations due to infectious diseases.
Besides the United States, the only other countries without paid maternity leave are the Marshall Islands, Micronesia, Nauru, Palau, Papua New Guinea, Suriname, and Tonga.
“Any time off is better than zero time off,” said Maya Rossin-Slater, an economist in the Stanford health policy department that studies paid time off. “That being said, I think it’s also worth pointing out that some of the health benefits of time off clearly occur at longer durations.”