U.S. Failing its Families

Feb 24, 2011

By Melissa Gran

Failing its Families, a new report from Human Rights Watch reveals the financial, physical and mental hardships endured by new parents, especially women, because of deficient paid parental leave policies in the United States. “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.

Paid leave for new parents is standard practice in almost all developed countries. The United States joins only Papua New Guinea and Swaziland in not legally guaranteeing paid maternity leave. This puts the U.S. even further behind the more than 50 countries that also provide paid paternal leave.

Interviews with  parents nationwide found most new mothers had little to no support and unpaid leave often led to derailed careers, denied promotions and raises, discrimination, debt and bankruptcy.

When Anita R., a veterinary technician and mother of three, told her employer that she was pregnant, they cut her hours and reduced her pay. The company offered no paid sick days, no paid family leave, and just one week of vacation per year.  “Our debt went up when I had unpaid leave,” said Anita. “We got behind on bills, like credit card bills and our car payment…. Food was tighter.” 

The report also explores how unpaid maternity leave can jeopardize the health of both parent and child.  One mother said she felt forced by her economic situation to return to work eight weeks after having a Cesarean section even though she was in pain from an infected wound and had trouble walking. After depleting the few paid sick days she had, she could not afford to take any more time off of work.

For many mothers, inadequate time or money or lack of health insurance leaves common post-partum conditions like depression and infection untreated. Parents may also have a harder time coping with health problems of newborn or newly adopted children, or obtaining standard immunizations and health check-ups for their babies. 

In the United States, the 1993 Family and Medical Leave Act enables workers with new children or seriously ill family members to take up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave, but it excludes companies with fewer than 50 employees. This means it only covers about half the U.S. workforce and among those who are covered, many cannot afford to take unpaid leave.

Having children should be a source joy and not financial ruin. It is truly a human rights concern when new parents have little or no paid family leave after childbirth or adoption.

Read the full report >>

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