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Every Other Wealthy Country Offers Paid Family Leave — Why is the U.S. So Far Behind?

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In August, U.S. Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg and his husband Chasten became parents after the adoption of their twins, Penelope and Joseph. Last month, Buttigieg was widely criticized for taking time off from his high profile job to care for his new children. For instance, Fox News Host Tucker Carlson made homophobic remarks regarding the transportation secretary’s time off. 

Despite being widely criticized, Buttigieg’s decision to take paid time off to take care of his newborns is a privilege most Americans don’t have. The United States is one of the wealthiest countries in the world; yet, it falls behind other wealthy nations and doesn’t guarantee access to paid family leave for all of its citizens. Buttigieg was able to utilize the Biden administration’s family-first approach, which ensures that all staff have access to paid leave for family obligations.  However, Buttigieg remarked to the New York Times that taking paid leave “shouldn’t be up to your particular good fortune” or the kindness of your employer. 

The concept of paid family leave has been long debated in American politics, yet no widespread advancements have been achieved. Recently, paid family leave has been widely debated in the House of Representatives and repeatedly added and removed from the massive social safety bill. The Congressional Budget Office recently released the final cost estimate of the bill allowing a vote to be held in the House. In the early morning of Nov. 19, the House voted to pass the HR 5376 Build Back Better bill introduced by President Joe Biden. The bill originally included 12 weeks of paid family leave, but it was negotiated down to just four weeks. This would allow all Americans to take up to four weeks off to care for their loved ones after birth, in sickness or to take care of their own health.

While this would be a step in the right direction, four weeks would still leave the U.S. as an outlier on the paid leave spectrum. Many countries offer over a year of paid leave to new parents. Estonia leads the world in family paid time off by offering 86 weeks of paid leave to new parents. Japan is also very supportive of new mothers by offering paid maternity leave in the weeks and months before birth and then offering childcare leave in the following months after birth. 

For many American parents, the concept of getting months of paid leave after the birth of a child is foreign. Many parents are forced to take little to no time off work so they can continue earning money to support their families. 

America’s lack of a national paid family leave further extenuates class divides and struggles. Many Americans who have high paying jobs have access to paid leave through their employer. However, this is a relatively small percentage of all American workers. According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, only 25% of non-federal employers offer some kind of paid leave for new parents. Workers in the highest income quartile are three times more likely to have access to paid parental leave than those in the lowest quartile. 

While the U.S. offers up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave for new parents per the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), many people don’t have the luxury of forfeiting a portion of their paycheck. This forces parents to decide between spending quality time with their child or paying the bills — a decision no parent should have to make. 

However, there are still large numbers of Americans who are against universal paid parental leave. Many of these individuals cite government overreach as their reasoning. Those who oppose paid leave argue that it should be left up to the individual companies to provide paid leave to their employees if they can afford it. 

Despite these criticisms, the benefits of a universal paid parental leave seem to largely outweigh any of the negatives. Providing access to paid parental leave has been shown to boost economic growth by making it easier for workers to keep the jobs that are good fits for them and their families. Given how taxing childbirth can be on women, it also permits women to stay in the workforce and keep their job after the birth of their children. 

Too much time has been spent waiting for the employers to implement universal paid leave, many of whom cannot do so without government assistance. It’s time for U.S. lawmakers to step in and offer the same paid leave they use to their constituents. American parents have waited far too long. 

Claire Schad is an Opinion Intern for the fall 2021 quarter. She can be reached at schadc@uci.edu