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Millions of US workers – including parents of infants – are harmed by weak or nonexistent laws on paid leave, breastfeeding accommodation, and discrimination against workers with family responsibilities, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today. Workers face grave health, financial, and career repercussions as a result. US employers miss productivity gains and turnover savings that these cost-effective policies generate in other countries.

The 90-page report, “Failing its Families: Lack of Paid Leave and Work-Family Supports in the US,” is based on interviews with 64 parents across the country. It documents the health and financial impact on American workers of having little or no paid family leave after childbirth or adoption, employer reticence to offer breastfeeding support or flexible schedules, and workplace discrimination against new parents, especially mothers. 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. Some women said employer bias against working mothers derailed their careers. Same-sex parents were often denied even unpaid leave.

“We can't afford not to guarantee paid family leave under law – especially in these tough economic times,” said Janet Walsh, deputy women’s rights director at Human Rights Watch and author of the report. “The US is actually missing out by failing to ensure that all workers have access to paid family leave. Countries that have these programs show productivity gains, reduced turnover costs, and health care savings.”
One woman interviewed by Human Rights Watch said her manager was unhappy about her pregnancy and forced her to clean up the floor and do tasks normally assigned to other staff in the last months of her pregnancy, and refused to let her use accrued paid sick leave after her baby was born. When she returned to work after a six-week unpaid leave, her manager denied her a space to pump breast milk, forced her to work night shifts, and threatened to fire her if she took time off for medical appointments for her ailing baby. Lacking health insurance, she received no treatment for severe post-partum depression.

The federal Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) enables US 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.

“Leaving paid leave to the whim of employers means millions of workers are left out, especially low-income workers who may need it most,” Walsh said. “Unpaid leave is not a realistic option for many workers who cannot afford it or who risk losing their jobs if they take it.”

California and New Jersey are the only two states with public paid family leave insurance programs. Both are financed exclusively through small employee payroll tax contributions. According to a newly released study of the California program conducted by researchers at the Center for Economic and Policy Research and the City University of New York, employers overwhelmingly reported that the program has had a positive or neutral effect on productivity, profitability, turnover, and employee morale. Small businesses were less likely than large ones to report any negative effect. Studies from other countries similarly have found that offering paid leave is good for business, increasing productivity and reducing employee turnover costs.

Moreover,  research on the  impact of paid maternity leave on health has found that paid and sufficiently long leaves are associated with increased breastfeeding, lower infant mortality, higher rates of immunizations and health visits for babies, and lower risk of postpartum depression.

“Around the world, policymakers understand that helping workers meet their work and family obligations is good public policy,” Walsh said. “It’s good for business, for the economy, for public health, and for families. It’s past time for the US to get on board with this trend.”

Other countries – and international treaties – have long recognized the need to provide better support for working families. 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. Additional paid parental leave for fathers and mothers is available in most OECD countries.

In a sign of the importance of paid leave for new parents in other countries, since 2008 and throughout the recession, changes to maternity, paternity, or parental leave benefits in most European Union countries either increased payment benefits or revised the program’s structure without lowering benefits, according to a 2010 European Commission report.

Providing paid leave for new parents has not broken the bank in these countries, Human Rights Watch said.  For example, public expenditures on maternity leave amount to an average of 0.3 percent of GDP for countries in the European Union and the OECD. Leave benefits are generally financed through public mechanisms, with funds coming from some combination of employee payroll tax deductions, general tax revenue, health insurance funds, and employer contributions. The trend is away from direct employer payment. A 2010 global survey by researchers at McGill and Northeastern Universities showed that countries guaranteeing leave to care for family health have the highest levels of economic competitiveness.

“With relatively minimal expenditures, paid family leave and other work-family supports are literally saving lives, promoting family financial stability, and even increasing business productivity,” Walsh said.

The adoption of laws to enable workers to meet work and family obligations around the world has largely been in response to the massive growth in women’s participation in the labor force over the past century. Yet in the US, workforce demographic changes have not brought about legal and policy changes to support the modern workforce. In the US, women now constitute roughly half of the workforce, and the vast majority of American children live in households where all adults are working.

In addition to lacking laws on paid family leave in most states, US law is weak in other areas important for working families, Human Rights Watch found. Federal law does provide some support for nursing mothers, but leaves out many workers.  There is virtually no protection for workers seeking flexible schedules and little protection against workplace discrimination on the basis of family care-giving responsibilities.

Congress and state legislatures should enact public paid leave insurance for new parents and for workers caring for family members with serious health conditions, Human Rights Watch said. Federal and state governments should expand coverage under laws that support breastfeeding and pumping breast milk at work, promote flexible schedules and work conditions to accommodate family care needs, establish minimum standards for paid sick days, and amend antidiscrimination laws to explicitly prohibit discrimination on the basis of family responsibilities, Human Rights Watch said.

The US should also ratify international treaties that promote equality and decent employment conditions for workers with family responsibilities, including the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW).

“Despite its enthusiasm about ‘family values,’ the US is decades behind other countries in ensuring the well-being of working families,” Walsh said. “Being an outlier is nothing to be proud of in a case like this. We need contemporary policies for contemporary workers.”


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