US doesn't mandate paid maternity leave. Obama says it's time to change

President Obama hosted a summit for working families Monday and pushed for guaranteed paid maternity leave as well as more flexible work schedules.

Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP
President Obama sits down to have lunch with Shelby Ramirez at a Chipotle Mexican Grill in Washington Monday before they attend the White House Summit on Working Families.

A White House Summit on Working Families Monday focused attention on a workplace policy where the US stands in a league of its own: America is the only advanced economy without a legal provision for paid maternity leave.

President Obama said it’s time to change that as well as other policies in a bid to make the American workplace better for families. He also called for steps to expand paid sick leave, flexible work schedules, and access to affordable child care.

News coverage Monday played the summit as an event keyed closely to Democratic Party election themes – with messages that can help galvanize sought-after female voters in key congressional races.

But the event also, undeniably, focuses on an issue of genuine concern to millions of American families.

For example, one prominent ongoing effort to track US opinion, the General Social Survey, has a found more than 8 in 10 adults say working women should have access to paid maternity leave. And about 9 in 10 say employers should give flexibility for workers to meet family needs so long as the work gets done, a newly released Harris Poll finds.

Mr. Obama framed the summit as part of his broader focus on getting the economy working for average Americans.

“As President, my top priority is rebuilding an economy where everybody who works hard has the chance to get ahead,” he wrote in a Huffington Post opinion column tied to the summit. He argued the answer involves not just more jobs but also more jobs that offer flexible scheduling or “adequate leave to care for a new baby or an ailing parent.”

According to the International Labour Organization, the US ranks at the bottom among developed nations in the amount of leave time mothers get (paid or unpaid). And the group reports that of 166 nations it tracks, 97 percent have embraced the idea of paid maternity leave – although only 36 percent of them provide that pay should cover at least two-thirds of a worker’s previous earnings for at least 14 weeks.

Currently, the 1993 Family Medical Leave Act provides most US workers with 12 weeks of unpaid leave for family or medical reasons during a 12-month period. By one survey, about 4 in 10 US workers say they have access to paid family leave for the birth of a child. The benefit is much more common for moms than for both moms and dads.

Obama did not propose specific new legislation Monday regarding maternity leave, but said “If France can figure this out, we can figure this out.”

The White House pointed Monday to a range of other actions related to working families:

  • A presidential memorandum directs federal agencies to expand flexible workplace policies as much as possible.
  • Obama is urging Congress to pass a “Pregnant Workers Fairness Act,” designed to enhance job protections for pregnant workers and new moms.
  • The president’s budget calls for Congress to permanently extend expansions of the Child Tax Credit and Earned Income Tax Credit. Those income-tax credits help many low-income parents keep working while affording child care and other parenting-related expenses.
  • The Labor Department is also offering technical skill training grants to help low-wage workers retrain, with help for child-care expenses as they do it.

For all their popularity, benefits like paid leave bring some costs that have to be borne by someone.

White House reports, released alongside the one-day summit, pointed to evidence that when employers are flexible about the timing and location of work, morale and productivity improve.

Not every business proprietor agrees. Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer drew lots of publicity – and criticism – when she called the tech company’s telecommuters back to the office as part of a turnaround effort. 

Some states have created paid family leave programs where costs are covered in a manner similar to unemployment insurance – from a state fund that’s replenished by payroll taxes. California funds its program with a tax on employees (but not employers).

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