The US is poised to exit the small club of countries with no paid parental leave

The gift of time.
The gift of time.
Image: Reuters/Flavio Lo Scalzo
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Joe Biden wants to change the script on paid parental leave in the US.

In his first joint address to Congress, on April 28, the US president laid out his plan for a national paid family and medical leave program that would finally make the US less of a global outlier in its policies to support working parents.

His $1.8 trillion American Families Plan would, among other things, give working parents paid time off, with at least two-thirds of their salary (or up to $4,000 a month) covered by federal payments.

“A lack of family-friendly policies, such as paid family and medical leave for when a worker need[s] time to care for a new child, a seriously ill family member, or recover from their own serious illness, has been identified as a key reason for the US decline in competitiveness,” the White House said in a fact sheet explaining the plan.

The family and medical leave program will cost an estimated $225 billion over 10 years, at the end of which new parents would be eligible for 12 weeks of paid leave.

The sorry state of US parental leave policies

As things stand, gender equity advocates and journalists commonly illustrate the sorry state of US parental leave policies by listing the nations around the world that do not mandate any federal paid leave at all for new parents: Lesotho, Liberia, Papua New Guinea, Swaziland, and the United States. Only one of these countries is considered high-income. It is, in fact, the largest economy in the world.

A handful of US states have enacted paid parental leave laws, but the federal government has made the same support available only to federal employees, while people at private-sector companies with more than 50 employees can take unpaid time away from work without the risk of losing their jobs.

The private sector has stepped in—sort of

Companies have the option of creating maternity or parental benefits, but only about 25% of private-sector firms do. Meanwhile, parents who work at those firms tend to be higher earners, and are more likely to have the option of staying home to care for a new child without having to worry about running out of money to pay for groceries or household bills. It’s a stark example of US inequality that irked Meghan McCain, a staunch Republican who favors small government, enough to call for a federal paid maternity leave bill after her own post-maternity leave political awakening.

Biden’s plan would undoubtedly be an improvement on what exists now for most Americans: nothing. It ought to be seen as a win for gender equity—paid parental leave keeps women in the workforce—and a boon for the health and welfare of parents and newborns.

However, compared to other rich countries, the proposed scheme still comes up short. In the UK, parental leave can total 41 weeks. In Sweden, it can add up to just more than 68 weeks, or 480 days, with pay at 78% of earnings. Just north of the US border, Canada offers up to 61 weeks of paid parental leave on an extended benefits plan.

Here’s a look at paid maternity leave in OECD countries using 2019 data. In many places, additional parental leave (available for parents to share after the birth or adoption of a child) makes the total time that a parent can claim much longer. Workers might also be able to add job-protected unpaid time off.