Is paid leave near for all US workers?

When Jessica Bartholow's son was born a year and a half ago, she reluctantly returned to work when he was just 10 weeks old. Although her employer provides four months of unpaid leave, she and her husband needed her paycheck.

Now, as the couple await the birth of their second child, Mrs. Bartholow looks forward to staying home for the full four months. The difference this time? A pioneering paid family-leave program in California that allows workers to collect partial wages for six weeks, up to a maximum of $728 a week. Funds come from employee contributions to the state's disability insurance program.

"My husband and I just bought a home, and the mortgage payments don't stop when a baby comes," says Bartholow, who works at the Alameda County Community Food Bank in Oakland, Calif. "This is going to help us to keep the bills paid while taking care of our family."

Thirteen million Californians are covered by the law, which took effect July 1. They account for nearly one-tenth of the country's workforce. For them - and for the rest of the nation looking on - the law may help answer the oft-asked question: Is the United States ever likely to provide European-style paid leave?

In a new study of labor codes in 168 countries by the Labor Project for Working Families at the Harvard School of Public Health, the US ranks near the bottom in terms of paid leave.

"What you find is incredibly stark about where the US fits with respect to the rest of the world," says Jody Heymann, an associate professor at the Harvard School of Public Health. She notes that 163 countries guarantee paid leave to women in connection with childbirth.

Among industrialized countries, only the US and Australia provide no paid leave. Australia does offer 52 weeks of unpaid leave to all workers. By contrast, the Family and Medical Leave Act in the US provides 12 weeks of unpaid leave for 50 to 60 percent of American workers.

Work and family experts see growing support for paid leave in the US. In the past several years, five states have passed laws requiring private-sector employers to let workers use their own sick leave to care for a family member who's ill.

There's increasing bipartisan support for these measures, says Lisa Bell, a senior policy associate for the National Partnership for Women and Families. "Legislators on both sides of the aisle are sponsoring this in states. To the extent that bipartisanship is important to get things passed, we know this has real legs."

In Minnesota, she notes, a program providing partial wage replacement to allow low-income parents to stay home and care for their new infants was sponsored by a Republican social conservative.

Dr. Heyman sees the California law as a start. "Many policies that we have come to hold dear in this country, of which Social Security is one example, began at the state level, then spread to the national level," she says.

At the national level, Sen. Edward Kennedy (D) of Massachusetts last month introduced a bill called the Healthy Families Act. It would require companies with more than 15 employees to provide seven paid sick days a year. Workers could use the time either to recover from illness or to care for sick family members.

Yet the prospect of expanded paid leaves does not please some business leaders, who fear rising costs and the loss of key employees for extended periods.

"I don't see [a nationwide paid leave law] on the horizon," says Randy Johnson, vice president for labor policy at the US Chamber of Commerce in Washington. "There would be strong opposition on the part of the business community." He also hears objections to Senator Kennedy's bill, noting "much concern" over the precedent it would set.

Supporters of paid-leave policies note that relatively few employees take leave at any one time, and the vast majority return to their jobs.

"We believe people take leave because they must take it - they have no choice," says Glen Harvey, CEO of WestEd, a nonprofit educational research organization in San Francisco. "We think if we support them in that, in the long run they'll be much more productive employees."

That attitude reassures workers like Bartholow, anticipating her maternity leave. Noting that she has been with her employer for more than five years, she says, "I think they're really happy with the new law. It does help me to make a more successful transition back into work."

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