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US still lags on paid parental leave

There I was, on the day my six months of maternity leave had ended, pushing my son’s stroller with one arm, balancing diapers under the other, doing my best to navigate through piles of slushy snow. It was his first day of day care, my time at home over in a blink.

Still, I knew I was relatively fortunate: The first eight weeks of my leave were paid, I had tacked on another three weeks of paid vacation. Plus, my employer permits workers to take up to six months of unpaid leave.

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The vast majority of new parents in this country are not so lucky. It is no secret that when it comes to paid parental leave, the United States is among the worst in the world, ranking down with the handful of countries that don’t offer any paid leave at all, among them Liberia, Suriname, and Papua New Guinea.

The US situation hasn’t materially improved since the landmark Family and Medical Leave Act was signed into law 20 years ago this month by President Clinton. The law requires larger employers and public agencies to provide up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave — as well as continuation of health benefits — for the birth or adoption of a child or to care for an opposite-sex spouse, parent, or child who has fallen ill. But about 40 percent of workers fall through the cracks because the law only requires companies with 50 or more employees to comply. To get the benefit, employees must also have worked for their company for at least a year and logged 1,250 hours in the past 12 months. And lots of people simply cannot afford unpaid leave.

‘‘This was really intended as a first step,’’ said Vicki Shabo of the National Partnership for Women & Families, referring to the law, which the group helped write.

But expanding the policy’s reach has been painfully slow. Some states have taken it upon themselves to bolster the rules and now cover a broader swath of workers or provide some paid leave. And companies that tend to work the hardest to lure employees, including Google, have gone much further to fill in gaps.

Despite the myriad benefits of paid leaves for babies, their parents, and even employers, the number of firms that offer the time off is dismal.

‘‘We know maternity leave is associated with lower infant mortality rates, lower hospitalization rates, lower infant sickness and they are more likely to be breast-fed,’’ said Jody Heymann, dean of the Fielding School of Public Health at the University of California, Los Angeles, and ‘‘therefore have lower rates of diarrhea, pneumonia and so there are gains in terms of reduced health care costs as well.’’

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, only 11 percent of all private industry workers have access to paid family leave (16 percent of state and local government employees have access to some paid family leave; federal workers don’t get any). Well-paid people who work in managerial or professional occupations at companies with 100 employees or more are the most likely to have the benefit, according to the Institute for Women’s Policy Research.

Even the policies at some of the most generous US companies pale in comparison with the 31 countries that provide a year or more of paid maternity leave, typically through government-run insurance programs, experts say. Working Mother compiles a list of the ‘‘100 Best Companies’’ in the United States each year, and parental leave policies are one of several factors baked into those rankings. Even among the standouts, the average time off in 2012 was seven weeks of fully paid maternity leave, while new fathers received an average of three paid weeks. Keep in mind that the list is not exhaustive.

Google beefed up its paid leave for new mothers in 2007 to five months after executives realized that women were leaving at twice the rate of men. After that, attrition dropped by half.

Most of Europe and Central Asia — 38 of 53 countries — provide 26 weeks or more of paid leave for mothers, according to Heymann’s research.

Some lawmakers in Washington have proposed expanding the Family and Medical Leave Act so that it covers more people. Other consumer advocates are more ambitious. They would like to see a paid federal family leave insurance program.

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