My colleague, Nicole Netkin-Collins, spent a semester in Australia last year, and wrote a thesis on paid parental leave that surveyed the law in several countries. I learned a lot from her, so I asked her to help me prepare this article so that we could share her vast knowledge on EmpowerHER.com.
With little press coverage in the United States, Australia enacted a national paid parental leave scheme last year. The law, the Paid Parental Leave Act of 2010, went into effect on January 1, 2011 and provides eligible employees with 18 weeks of pay upon the birth or adoption of a child. It is fully funded by the Australian Government and is paid at the national minimum wage. The law is a milestone for working parents, particularly working mothers, who require time off from work to care for their newborn or newly adopted child, but who would not otherwise be able to afford to do so. It also means that the United States is now the only Western country without any such provision, and is among only a handful of countries, such as Lesotho, Papua New Guinea, and Swaziland, that does not provide for parental leave that is paid.
Mothers and fathers in the United States may take 12 weeks off of work after the birth or adoption of a child under the Family and Medical Leave Act. However, the provision is limited to employees who work for employers with 50 or more employees, and the leave is unpaid. Thus, although the FMLA provides some American parents with job protection – an employee cannot be fired while on FMLA – it is under-utilized by new parents. Many parents, particularly single mothers, cannot afford to go three months without any income and return to work before they, or their new baby, are ready.
However, there is a movement afoot to extend these sorts of protections in the United States. In 2002, California became the first state to create a paid family leave program. California’s Paid Family Leave allows workers to take six weeks of paid leave to not only care for a new baby, but also to care for family members with serious health conditions. Two states – New Jersey and Washington – and the District of Columbia have followed suit, and the federal government has considered, but not passed, bills that would provide wage-replacement to federal government employees on family leave.
Paid parental leave – or, paid family leave – could be a reality in the United States. We need only to build on the momentum created by the State of California and demonstrate a willingness to learn from the experience of our neighbor’s “down under.” Working mothers, and fathers, deserve the security of knowing they can not only care for their new babies, but also pay their bills as well.