Human Rights Watch targets ... the United States

For its terrible parental-leave policies

Published February 23, 2011 1:44PM (EST)

Four year old boy on his father's back while working on laptop. Shot over white.    (Jaimie D. Travis)
Four year old boy on his father's back while working on laptop. Shot over white. (Jaimie D. Travis)

When a survey produced by a major human rights organization results in 178 countries on one side of the ledger, and the United States, Swaziland, and Papua New Guinea on the other, you know what's coming isn't going to be good.

Today Human Rights Watch released a report criticizing the U.S. for its lack of paid parental leave policies, finding that America is alone among major nations in its family-unfriendly leave policies. Paid parental leave in most countries is financed either by employers or social security.

The big numbers:

One of the most common work-family supports, paid maternity leave, is practically universal: academic research covering 190 countries shows that as of 2011, 178 countries guarantee paid maternity leave under national law. In nine of the 190 countries, the status of paid leave for new mothers was unclear. Just three countries definitively offer no legal guarantee of paid maternity leave: Papua New Guinea, Swaziland—and the United States.

Another 50+ countries also have paid paternity leave.

In the U.S. meanwhile, the 1993 Family and Medical Leave Act allows workers to take unpaid parental leave. That law, though, only covers half the workforce because it exempts companies who have under 50 employees.

Here, according to HRW, are the effects of the American system:

Human Rights Watch heard consistent accounts of the harmful consequences of inadequate paid family and sick leave after childbirth or adoption, employer reticence to offer breastfeeding support or flexible schedules, and career fallout from becoming parents. Parents with short and unpaid leaves described delaying immunizations and health care visits for babies; physical and mental health problems for parents; short periods or early cessation of breastfeeding and dismal conditions for pumping; financial hardship; debt; demotion; and denials of raises or promotions.

Don't look to Congress to address these issues any time soon. The real hope for change may be on the state-level; California and New Jersey, for example, have created paid family leave insurance programs.

By Justin Elliott

Justin Elliott is a reporter for ProPublica. You can follow him on Twitter @ElliottJustin

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