Many of us American mamis have ancestors who came from Latin America in search of a better life. But when you compare maternity leave policies across the Americas you realize that, in this regard at least, we might have been better off had they stayed put, because in spite of its relative wealth, the U.S. ranks dead last in our hemisphere (and is the five worst nations on earth) for guaranteeing paid parental leave.
A study out of McGill University’s Institute for Health and Social Policy shows that the United States is one of only five of 173 countries in the world to not offer guaranteed paid maternity leave to new mothers. This means that in the U.S., a new mother with a job outside the home might well be forced to choose between her job and her new baby. The other countries in this undistinguished company are Lesotho, Liberia, Swaziland and Papua New Guinea.
In the United States, a new mother can take up to 12 weeks off after the birth of her child under the Family and Medical Leave Act, without being fired, but she will not be guaranteed pay for it. All other countries in the Americas offer paid maternity leave. What’s worse? Companies with fewer than 50 employees in the United States are exempt from offering any leave at all.
According to the U.S. Department of Labor, half of all families with children in the United States have two working parents, with another 26 percent being headed by single mothers. This means that for three-fourths of new mothers in the United States, a job outside the home is not a luxury, but rather an imperative for survival.
Supporters of this dismal situation claim that the free market is in charge, and that corporate profits are the most important factor. But research published in Forbes magazine disputes this notion, showing that Gap Corporation saved millions by giving paid family leave to its employees, because the costs associated with searching for, hiring and training replacement workers was higher in the end.
Incredibly, every country in Latin America seems to understand this and does better than the richest nation on earth in providing and guaranteeing paid maternity—and in some cases also paternity—leave to its citizens.
Former U.S. Senator Chris Dodd (D-Connecticut) tried to pull the U.S. into modernity by introducing legislation to mandate six weeks of paid maternity leave, but was unsuccessful. Dodd often said that the lack of paid family leave in the U.S. threatened our competitiveness, families, economy and productivity.
That Dodd couldn’t get six measly weeks of paid family leave in the United States is incredible when you consider that a relatively poor country like Cuba provides 18 weeks of paid family leave to new parents—making it among the most advanced nations on earth in this aspect. Argentina lets new parents have 90 days off with pay. In Costa Rica, it’s 16 weeks; in Mexico, El Salvador, Guatemala, The Dominican Republic, Nicaragua, Uruguay, Paraguay, Ecuador and Colombia, 12; in Panama, 14; in Chile, 18. (For more details and charts comparing policies in various Latin American nations, click here to read a UNICEF report.)
In addition to guaranteed paid time off to care for newborn babies, most women in Latin America are also guaranteed paid time off each day (usually about an hour) when they return to work, in order to breastfeed. There is no such law in the United States.
No country in this hemisphere has particularly forward-thinking laws when it comes to letting dad take time off after the birth of his baby, however. Most countries have no provisions for paid paternity leave at all, though there are a few exceptions. Argentina, Brazil and Paraguay give dads two paid days off. Brazil and Chile give dads five paid days off. Ecuador and Uruguay give dads 10 paid days off, with Ecuador boosting it to 15 days if the child is adopted. Venezuela gives dads 14 continuous days off, paid. Cuba has the most benefits for dads, with the law there saying that either mom or dad (but not both) can choose to stay home, fully paid, for one year after the birth of the baby. There are no paid days off for new dads in Bolivia, El Salvador, Costa Rica, Honduras, Mexico, Nicaragua, Panama, The Bahamas, Barbados, Antigua and Barburda, Belize, Grenada, Haiti, Guyana, Jamaica, St. Lucia, St. Kitts and Nevis, Suriname, Trinidad and Tobago.
“Despite its enthusiasm about ‘family values’ the U.S. is decades behind other countries in ensuring the well-being of working families,” Janet Walsh, deputy director of the women’s rights division of Human Rights Watch, told the Associated Press last year. “Being an outlier is nothing to be proud of in this case.”