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Guess Who’s Leading on Paid Leave? (Hint: Not Us)

Editor’s note: This has been cross-posted on the Huffington Post.

I spent last week in Melbourne, Australia representing our government at a meeting of Labor Ministers of the world’s 20 major economies.

After sitting down with my G20 counterparts and learning more about their policies relating to work and workplaces, my main takeaway is that the United States is distressingly behind the curve on paid family leave.

It’s incomprehensible to me that we’re the only industrialized nation without a national paid leave law of any kind. How can we say we’re for family values when so many women in the United States have to jeopardize their livelihood to take a few weeks off from work after giving birth? Should a man have to sacrifice his economic security to take care of his sick mother or his wife returning wounded from active duty?

Our global partners have figured this out, building a solid consensus around these issues. They’ve taken partisanship and ideology out of the debate to recognize this for what it is – a 21st century economic imperative. They’ve discovered that paid leave, child care and similar policies increase our human capital by bringing more women into the labor force. They know it’s possible to have a growing economy, thriving businesses and family-friendly workplaces. They’ve realized we have to give people the tools to be productive employees and attentive parents – the two aren’t mutually exclusive, they go hand-in-hand.

Consider these examples:

  • Canada guarantees at least 15 weeks of paid maternity leave, with some employee cost-sharing as part of the national employment insurance system. Parental leave is 37 weeks shared between both parents with similar payments. There is also child care support of $100 per month for children under six.
  • The United Kingdom allows women to take up to 52 weeks of maternity leave (including 39 weeks with pay), in addition to a range of options for paternity leave.
  • Australia offers up to 18 weeks of parental leave with financial support, and at 5.8 percent its unemployment rate is lower than ours. The conservative Australian government didn’t embrace this policy grudgingly; they made it a centerpiece of their campaign platform and want to extend it to 26 weeks with more financial support.
  • Brazilian unemployment is comparable to ours, but their women get 120 days of leave at 100 percent pay.
  • Japan offers paid maternity leave at slightly reduced salary and benefits for up to 14 weeks of total leave. Moreover, Prime Minister Abe has made “Womenomics” — increasing GDP by boosting female labor force participation — a cornerstone of his governing agenda.

So, where does that leave us? While the rest of the world leans in, we’re still falling behind.

Unfortunately, there isn’t much appetite in this Congress for forward progress on these issues. But instead of waiting for leadership from Capitol Hill, we’re incentivizing reforms at the state level where so much public policy innovation takes place. Later this week, I’ll announce the winners of $500,000 in total grants for states to explore the feasibility and evaluate the effectiveness of paid leave policies. Currently, California, Rhode Island and New Jersey stand alone as states with paid family and medical leave laws.

Our pressing challenge right now is to ensure shared prosperity, to build an economy that works for everyone. That means investing in the middle class, rewarding hard work and responsibility, ensuring that everyone has a chance to succeed. Paid leave has to be at the center of those efforts.

Follow Secretary Perez on Twitter, @LaborSec.

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