Paid parental leave remains a pipe dream

February 10, 2018 08:23 pm | Updated February 11, 2018 04:47 pm IST

baby socks on clothesline with yen banknotes from japan.

baby socks on clothesline with yen banknotes from japan.

The U.S. does not mandate any paid parental leave for its workers. On this issue, it joins the very short list of countries like Lesotho, Swaziland and Papua New Guinea.

All other nations have some form of paid parental leave. Sweden apparently has the most generous system — 480 days per child, which parents can take at any time till the child is eight years old. Sixty days are specifically for the father, and he is eligible for up to 80% of wages during these days. India recently revised its rules and now provides 26 weeks of paid maternity leave.

The U.S. is currently revisiting the topic. Ivanka Trump, President Donald Trump’s daughter, has been championing the cause since the 2016 campaign. In his recent State of the Union address, Mr. Trump sought the lawmakers’ support. However, the predominant American revulsion for any ‘entitlement’ for anyone is stymieing the proposal already.

This week marked the 25th anniversary of the Family and Medical Leave Act. Passed in 1993, the law mandates that employers with 50 or more employees grant full-time workers up to 12 weeks of leave — unpaid. The workers can take sick leave or leave to care for a newborn or an ill family member under the law.

While this unpaid, job-protected leave may appear better than nothing at all, studies have shown that this actually accentuates inequality. Unless they have money to see them through non-working weeks, people cannot afford to take leave. Consequently, people who are in low-wage occupations are less likely to use the benefits.

Employers can offer paid leave and some of them do. In a handful of States, a portion of the leave is paid. New York decided to take this route recently. However, all said, only 15% of the American workforce gets some paid leave for parenting. One out of four American mothers, most of them low-earning workers, return to work within two weeks of giving birth.

Opinion makers — including politicians, corporate leaders and commentators — appear to agree on the idea that there must be some parental leave, but there is little appetite for mandating the employers to pay for it. The idea of collective responsibility doesn’t pass muster in the U.S., and advocates are struggling hard to find economic arguments for it.

A Leftist idea?

A proposal that Republican Senator Marco Rubio has floated, in coordination with Ms. Ivanka Trump, is to dip into the beneficiary’s social security funds to underwrite paid parental leave. It would delay the retirement by six weeks or so, for the paid leave availed earlier. “That’s a new idea for Republicans who still identify it as something that comes out of the Left,” Mr. Rubio told Politico recently. “Forcing companies to provide it is perhaps an idea that finds its genesis on the Left, but the notion that pregnancy should not be a bankruptcy-eliciting event is one that I think all Americans should be supportive of.”

Speaker Paul Ryan, meanwhile, has proposed a mechanism to permit workers to use saved overtime for when they want to take time off with a newborn.

The Rubio proposal is being opposed both by progressives and conservatives. Progressives say this is not paid leave. The anti-entitlement brigade says this will lead to a further expansion of the social security programme.

Meanwhile, the fertility rate has hit a historic low — 62 births per 1,000 women in 2016, down 1% from 2015. Some commentators have termed this below-replacement-level fertility rate as America’s own ‘one child policy’.

Varghese K. George works for The Hindu and is based in Washington DC

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