By David Crary, AP National Writer
NEW YORK (AP) — Americans often take pride in ways their nation differs from others. But one distinction — lack of a nationwide policy of paid maternity leave — is cited in a new report as an embarrassment that could be redressed at low cost and without harm to employers.
"Despite its enthusiasm about 'family values,' the U.S. is decades behind other countries in ensuring the well-being of working families," said Janet Walsh, deputy director of the women's rights division of Human Rights Watch. "Being an outlier is nothing to be proud of in a case like this."
Human Rights Watch, based in New York, focuses most of its investigations on abuses abroad. But on Wednesday, with release of a report by Walsh on work/family policies in the U.S., it takes the relatively unusual step of critiquing a phenomenon affecting tens of millions of Americans.
The report, "Failing its Families," says at least 178 countries have national laws guaranteeing paid leave for new mothers, while the handful of exceptions include the U.S., Swaziland and Papua New Guinea. More than 50 nations, including most Western countries, also guarantee paid leave for new fathers.
Past efforts in Congress to enact a paid family leave law have floundered, drawing opposition from business lobbyists who say it would be a burden on employers.
Instead, there is the 1993 Family and Medical Leave Act, which enables workers with new children or seriously ill family members to take up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave. By excluding companies with fewer than 50 employees, it covers only about half the work force, and many who are covered cannot afford to take unpaid leave.
"Leaving paid leave to the whim of employers means millions of workers are left out, especially low-income workers who may need it most," said Walsh, citing federal estimates that only 10% of private-sector workers have paid family leave benefits.