Compared to almost every other country, America is behind when it comes to federal parental leave policies. See what other nations offer in their family leave packages.

By Lindsay Tigar
Updated October 24, 2019

Though many like to place the United States on the top of the list for certain achievements as a country, in terms of maternity and paternity leave, we are way behind. If you're already a parent, you don't need us to tell you how poor or restrictive the policies are—especially given the massive transformation a newborn has on your life, your body, and your career.

Illustration by Chris Gash

Considering most households in America rely on two incomes to make ends meet, there is often little wiggle room on taking additional unpaid time off to adjust to your growing family. The facts about U.S. government mandates for new moms and dads are startling, but if we take a page out of the rule books from other countries across the globe, things can get better.

What to Know About Parental Leave in America

The U.S. is the only industrialized country to not offer paid leave.

While the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) of 1993 provides eligible workers with federal entitlement to 12 weeks of unpaid, job-protected leave for particular caregiving needs, there is currently no federal law requiring employers provide any kind of paid leave, according to a Congressional Research Service report on Paid Family Leave. As of March 2018, only 16 percent of all private industry workers, including men and women, have access to employer-provided paid family leave, the report states. Of the 35 industrialized countries across all continents that make up the Organization for Economic Co-Operation and Development (OECD), the United States is the only one to not have a federal option for paid leave following the birth or adoption of a child.

Only some American parents are eligible for unpaid leave.

To even receive unpaid time off under FMLA, there are requirements employees must meet according to the U.S. Department of Labor. Women must work for their company for at least 12 months, or a total of 1,250 hours. Only companies who have 50 employees who work within 75 miles of the headquarters for a period of 20 weeks are required to offer this benefit. This means many start-ups, remote worker businesses, and small enterprises don't offer coverage under FMLA—while they can, it's not enforced. Any time off taken for pregnancy-related complications can be counted against the 12 weeks of FMLA. Therapist and clinical social worker Cassandra Tenzer, MSW, estimates that only 55 percent of Americans are eligible for unpaid leave under FMLA.

Under FMLA, a parent in a same-sex relationship who cares for or financially supports a child despite having no biological or legal connection to the child can take unpaid leave to care for this child.

It's also important to note that FMLA isn't just about new-parent leave, but also covers caregiving for a child, parent, or spouse. It's similar to a disability leave that what you would be offered if you broke your shoulder or a leg, and couldn't make it to the office. The United States has no section of governing laws that are specifically designated for new parents.

Laws vary greatly by state.

Currently four states—California, New Jersey, Rhode Island, and New York—are phasing in Family Leave Insurance (FLI) programs that are working well, says Erika Moritsugu, vice president for the economic justice team at the National Partnership for Women & Families. "The District of Columbia, Washington state, Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Oregon have also passed strong paid family and medical leave laws that will soon be fully in effect," she continues. She believes these statewide laws provide a roadmap for the type of inclusive, job-protected paid leave workers and families need. She explains these state policies serve as the model for the Family And Medical Insurance Leave (FAMILY) Act, paid leave legislation that is currently before Congress today. The FAMILY Act would use a 0.2 percent payroll tax on employees and employers to establish 60 days (12 weeks) of paid leave at a wage replacement rate of 66 percent, using a 0.2 percent payroll tax on employees and employers.

How the U.S. Compares to Other Countries

European countries are the most progressive in their maternal and paternal benefits. Many actively support a healthy work-and-life balance and will hold jobs for new parents, paying salaries for months—if not a full year. Here are some countries with competitive family leave offerings, from countries with the least amount of time offerings to the most.

Infographic by Julia Bohan

Croatia

Maternity leave for a pregnant parent who has served 12 continuous months with their company may begin at the earliest 45 days before the birth is expected and lasts up to six months. Pregnant parents are obligated to go on leave 28 days before birth and 70 days (10 weeks) after birth for full salary. If the parent has not been employed for the full 12 months before leave, they are still entitled to maternity leave and provided pay at 70 percent of their salary.

Italy

Pregnant parents are given 80 percent of pay for five months' leave that can be broken up into two months' leave prior to birth and three months after birth. They could also choose to take one month of leave prior to birth and four months after depending on health during pregnancy. For adoptive parents, the five months start on the date the guardianship begins.

Ireland

All females with insurable employment are entitled to 26 weeks of paid maternity leave with 16 weeks of additional unpaid leave. The pay a woman receives during the first 26 weeks of leave is dependent on her pay-related social insurance (PSRI) contributions.

Norway

Parents receive 49 weeks of leave at full salary. If parents want to extend their leave to 59 weeks, they can do so at 80 percent of their salary.

United Kingdom

Eligible employees can take 52 weeks—one full year—of maternity leave. The earliest leave can begin is 11 weeks before expected delivery, unless the baby is born prematurely. During that time, employees are paid for up to 39 weeks, with the first six weeks typically being paid at 90 percent of average weekly earnings before tax and the remaining 33 weeks paid at £148.68 if that is less than the 90 percent. Employees also cannot lose their jobs during this time.

Sweden

Each parent is entitled to 480 days—about 70 weeks—of paid leave after childbirth or adoption. For 390 days, both mothers and fathers are paid 80 percent of their regular salary. For the last 90 days, they receive a flat fee. Leave can be taken up until a child turns 8 years old, and parent can accumulate leave from several children. Parents also have an additional legal right to decrease their daily work hours by up to 25 percent until their child reaches 8 years old. Parents who choose this option are only paid for the hours they work, but they are still employed and their jobs are secure.

Beyond Maternity Leave

According to the World Bank Group's 2019 Women, Business, and the Law report, only 90 out of 187 countries (48 percent) provide any paid paternity leave that new fathers can take as a matter of national policy. While many private companies are offering paid paternity leave as an optional benefit, several organizations and celebrity fathers are calling for inclusive paid family leave. Alexis Ohanian, husband to Serena Williams and co-founder of Reddit, is partnering with PL+US (Paid Leave for the United States), a national campaign pushing for paid family leave by 2022.

"A true reform," says Moritsugu, "would mean gender-neutral and sexual orientation-neutral paid leave, including paid leave for those parents who need to take time away from work to care for children who are not infants and paid leave for individuals who need to address their own serious medical issues."

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