U.S. trails other countries in worker-friendly policies

By Kathy Gurchiek Feb 14, 2007

The United States falls short compared to all high-income and many middle- and low-income countries when it comes to providing such things as paid or unpaid paternity leave, guaranteeing a woman’s right to breast feed at work, and requiring employers to provide paid annual leave, says a new global study.

Advocates for mandated paid family leave in the United States pointed to the study to bolster their position.

Among the findings Harvard and McGill universities released Feb. 1 in the 2007 Work, Family, and Equity Index: How Does the U.S. Measure Up?

    • Fathers in 66 countries receive or have a right to paid paternity leave, and 31 countries offer 14 or more weeks of paid leave. The United States does not guarantee paternity leave.

    • 168 out of 173 countries studied guarantee paid maternal leave, but the United States, Lesotho, Liberia, Swaziland and Papua New Guinea do not. Ninety-eight countries offer 14 or more weeks of paid leave.

    • A woman’s right to breast feed at work is guaranteed in at least 107 countries; at least 73 provide paid breast-feeding breaks. The United States does neither.

    • Paid annual leave is required of employers in 137 countries; 121 guarantee two weeks or more annually. The United States does not require employers to offer such leave.

The Work, Family, and Equity Index is part of the Project on Global Working Families, and the index is used to measure governmental performance globally in meeting working families’ needs.

Findings are based on data from 177 countries, much of it from labor codes and other labor-related legislation, according to study authors Jody Heymann, Alison Earle and Jeffrey Hayes.

“More countries are providing the workplace protections that millions of Americans can only dream of,” noted Heymann, who founded the Harvard-based Project on Global Working Families and is the director of the McGill Institute for Health and Social Policy.

“The U.S. has been a proud leader in adopting laws that provide for equal opportunity in the workplace, but our work/family protections are among the worst,” she said in a press release. “It’s time for change.”

On the plus side, the United States has policies that ensure all racial and ethnic groups have equal rights in the workplace, regardless of gender, age or disability.

It also is one of 117 countries that guarantee a pay premium for overtime, the report points out, and its rate of “time and a half” for overtime is near the top in the range of guaranteed payments; only eight countries mandate more.

However, the findings point out a need to make some changes, according to Debra L. Ness, president of the National Partnership for Women & Families.

At least 145 countries provide paid sick days for short- or long-term illness; 127 provide a week or more annually. In the United States, the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) provides for unpaid leave for serious illness but does not cover 40 percent of private-sector workers and does not require paid sick days, the study notes.

“This study should serve as a wake-up call to Congress and the administration,” Ness said in a press release.

“We need to expand the Family and Medical Leave Act, adopt paid leave nationwide, and pass the Healthy Families Act.”

Calling the findings “powerful and important,” she said, “We intend to share [the index] with lawmakers at the federal and state levels.”

The U.S. Department of Labor recently issued a Request for Information about the FMLA, which Ness said could prompt rolling back the law that has allowed more than 50 million Americans to take job-protected unpaid leave from their jobs for the birth or adoption of a child or to care for themselves, their children or an immediate family member.

The deadline for public comment about the FMLA has been extended to Feb. 16, 2007.

The Healthy Families Act, introduced in Congress in April 2005, would require all U.S. employers with at least 15 employees to provide seven paid sick days annually. It may be reintroduced in March 2007, Ness noted.

Sen. Chris Dodd, D-Conn., announced Feb. 1 that in coming weeks he will introduce legislation that would provide paid leave for employees and expand the number of people eligible for FMLA. Dodd is author of the landmark FMLA.

Kathy Gurchiek is associate editor for HR News . She can be reached at kgurchiek@shrm.org.

For the latest HR-related business and government news, go daily to www.shrm.org/hrnews.

Related articles:

DOL seeks input on possible overhaul of FMLA rules, HR News, Dec. 1, 2006.

Reconciling the FMLA with State Leave Laws, SHRM Legal Report, October/November 2006.

FMLA and Other Leave Toolkit, SHRM Knowledge Center.


Job Finder

Find an HR Job Near You
Post a Job


Find the Right Vendor for Your HR Needs

SHRM’s HR Vendor Directory contains over 10,000 companies

Search & Connect