They’re wrenching questions every new parent must face: Should I take time off from work? How long? Will I get paid? Just 11 percent of American workers have paid family leave benefits, leaving millions to grapple with the long-term fallout of taking time off. We look at the impact of paid leave on families, and how the lack of paid leave laws in the U.S. -– and the abundance of them abroad — affect families and careers.


  • Janet Walsh Deputy Director of the Women's Rights Division at Human Rights Watch
  • Eileen Appelbaum Senior Economist, Center for Economic and Policy Research


  • 13:28:57

    MR. KOJO NNAMDIWelcome back. It's a question many of us face with the arrival of a new baby or even a serious illness in the family. How much time should I take off? Will I be paid during my leave? How much time away is too much time away? Just 11 percent of American workers have paid family leave benefits, leaving millions to grapple with the long term and emotional financial fallout from taking time off to care for loved ones. Employers have long said that paid family leave would raise costs and be a job killer.

  • 13:29:27

    MR. KOJO NNAMDIBut innovative insurance programs at home and abroad are proving otherwise and research is showing that the health benefits from paid maternity leave can last a lifetime for moms and for babies. So why does the United States still rank with Papua, New Guinea and Swaziland as one of only three countries in the world that don't guarantee paid parental leave? Joining us to discuss this question in our studio in Washington is Eileen Appelbaum, senior economist at the Center for Economic and Policy Research. Eileen Appelbaum, thank you so much for joining us.

  • 13:30:01


  • 13:30:02

    NNAMDIAnd joining us from the studios of the Argo Network in New York City is Janet Walsh, deputy director of the Women's Rights Division at Human Rights Watch. Janet Walsh, thank you for joining us.

  • 13:30:14

    MS. JANET WALSHThank you for having me.

  • 13:30:15

    NNAMDII'll start with you, Janet. It might surprise some of our listeners that during this time of upheaval in the Middle East, Human Rights Watch is releasing a report on paid family leave. Why did you decide to tackle this issue now?

  • 13:30:28

    WALSHWe consider all human rights to be important human rights, not just in times of war. Millions of American families are suffering from the lack of paid family leave and decent worker and workplace conditions so now is an important time to look at this, including because of the difficult economic times we're in.

  • 13:30:45

    NNAMDIThe United States has no federal guarantee of paid family leave and no national laws establishing minimum standards for paid sick days. Janet, how do we compare with other countries?

  • 13:30:57

    WALSHWe compare very badly. As you said in your introduction, there are 178 countries in the world that now have paid leave for new moms. There's more than 50 that have paid leave for fathers. There are many that also provide paid leave workers to care for sick family members. In a study done by researchers at Northeastern and McGill Universities that looked at 190 countries, there were just nine where it was unclear and only three, the ones you mentioned, Papua, New Guinea, Swaziland and the United States, that have no paid leave for new moms.

  • 13:31:30

    NNAMDIEileen, you've spent a lot of time in foreign countries studying their family leave policies. Tell us a little about your experience and what you found.

  • 13:31:38

    APPELBAUMWell, what was very, very interesting, I visited Japan, Australia, the Netherlands, Italy and Germany to try to understand with all of these policies that they have, how is it possible that their companies can be profitable. That was my question. And they assured me -- I met with managers, I met with their employers' associations, with their union associations and they said, really, it hasn't been a problem. That these are countries where they have long periods of paid vacation, these are countries, as in the U.S., where employees quit.

  • 13:32:14

    APPELBAUMThese are countries where employees get seriously ill and cannot return to work. They have to have something in place to deal with these exigencies anyway and they use exactly the same methods when they're talking about paid family leave. And, of course, as an American, I was kind of skeptical about that. But now that we have it in New Jersey and we have it in California and I am part of a research team with Ruth Milkman that has studied paid family leave in California. We did a survey of the employers as well as of the workers and we find that it is basically a non-event for employers.

  • 13:32:52

    NNAMDIFor those people who would want to see the other side of this coin, even though the U.S. is clearly far behind these other countries in guarantees of paid family leave, where does the U.S. excel?

  • 13:33:06

    APPELBAUMYes. Well, that was very, very interesting. We excel in equal employment opportunity. We may have a fair way to go before women and men are really equal in the work place and women occupy as many of the top level positions, but we have many more opportunities for women to be able to move into fields other than teaching, nursing and social work. We have many more opportunities for women to advance, if they are college-educated, into professional and managerial jobs, we pay a lot more attention to the diversity issue, the gender diversity issue.

  • 13:33:42

    APPELBAUMAnd there really is no other country that I visited that is quite as advanced, even Sweden, which has such wonderful work family policies, has much higher levels of gender segregation by occupation than we have in the U.S.

  • 13:33:59

    NNAMDII'd like to hear what our listeners think about this. Do you think that the United States should be offering guaranteed paid family or paid maternity leave? 800-433 -- paid parental leave that is, 800-433-8850. Have you had to cobble together sick days, vacation days and disability pay just to take care of a new baby? Would you prefer not to? 800-433-8850 or go to our website,, ask a question or make a comment there. Janet Walsh, is parental leave becoming less of a priority in these countries because of and during the global recession?

  • 13:34:36

    WALSHNo. It's actually very interesting. A study was done for the European Commission to look at exactly that question. And it looked at the time from 2008, during the financial meltdown around the world. And I think the authors expected to find some reduction in the parental leave policies. But in the countries it looked at throughout the European Union, it found that, with only a couple of exceptions, the changes that happened to parental leave made it more generous or only made structural changes.

  • 13:35:01

    WALSHThere have been a couple instances of small cut backs since that time. For example, in Germany -- but they're really quite small. In Germany, they have about 14 months, up to 14 months of parental leave. And it's generally compensated at 67 percent of salary. And the cutback they had was for the very highest income workers. They cut that from 67 to 65 percent.

  • 13:35:24

    NNAMDIEileen, we hold up Northern European countries, like Germany and you mentioned Sweden early, as some of the most generous with their paid family leave policies. But isn't there a downside, in that European employers don't want to hire women since -- because maybe they can expect weeks of leave in their future?

  • 13:35:43

    APPELBAUMI -- in my own research, I did not run into that. The two problems that I think were associated with the long absences when a woman had a baby, were the fact -- one of them is the fact that, as in the U.S., when people go on leave, there work is generally shared among the remaining employees. And women, then, self-selected into occupations with other women because they felt less pressure if they needed to take a leave. They knew that the other women might also have to take a leave and they didn't mind the fact that they were -- other people would be picking up the slack for them.

  • 13:36:24

    APPELBAUMAnd the second issue is how to keep employees' skills current if they're on a long leave. And this is an issue, which in the last few years, many of these countries have begun to deal with. So, for example, if you're out on a maternity leave and your unit at work is getting training, you could be invited back to participate in the training. Many countries now are experimenting with a situation in which you can come back to work on a very temporary basis without giving up your rights to pay parental leave.

  • 13:36:57

    APPELBAUMAnd so you do a little bit of work, you stay attached to the work place, you do the training and your skills stay current. Those seem to be the issues, not whether you would hire women and not whether women would have job opportunities.

  • 13:37:09

    NNAMDIJanet Walsh, a lot of people are likely to say, sure, guarantees of paid parental leave in national legislation sounds great, but who pays of it? Who pays for it in the countries that now have it?

  • 13:37:22

    WALSHMost of the countries that now have it, the trend is toward having social insurance funds either through public health insurance or social security, but these are funds that are contributed to, generally through taxes or payroll deductions. And the trend is away from having employers pay directly. And I think that that is helping to diminish the deterrent for employers in considering hiring women.

  • 13:37:49

    WALSHIf they're not the ones paying directly, these parental leave benefits, then there's less of a deterrent to hiring them in the first place.

  • 13:37:57

    NNAMDIEileen Appelbaum?

  • 13:37:58

    APPELBAUMYes. The fact that we have a paid parental leave, paid family leave in New Jersey and in California, it works like -- just like unemployment insurance in terms of it being a social insurance program. I personally do not believe that employers should be required to provide paid family or paid parental leave. I think it should be social insurance. And the thing is, it's very, very cheap. We now have two states doing it so we know what it costs. And in New Jersey, family leave insurance costs .0006 of your salary. So just to put that in context, if you are an employee making $500.00 a week, the family leave insurance costs you 30 cents.

  • 13:38:42

    NNAMDIAnd we should point out that in the United States, we have the FMLA, the Family and Medical Leave Act and people do have rights under it, but it does not provide for paid time off. It provides for the allowance of leave for purposes of maternity or family illness, but it doesn’t guarantee payment; is that correct?

  • 13:39:04

    APPELBAUMThat is correct. And it only covers about 60 percent of the workforce and only about half of young women who are most likely to be at the childbearing age and need it for that purpose.

  • 13:39:15

    NNAMDIAnd I'm glad you mentioned California and New Jersey because Richard in Annapolis, Md. has a question along that line. Richard, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 13:39:24

    RICHARDYeah, thank -- thank you, Kojo. I enjoy your show. I just wonder, why in the United States -- we're made up of, you know, 50 sovereign states. Why do we need a federal law? Why not we just let the states, like New Jersey and California, enact their own laws with regard to paid medical family leave?

  • 13:39:43

    NNAMDIJanet Walsh?

  • 13:39:45

    WALSHThat's an option and I think that, realistically, that is the way it will happen in this country. But I think that you would have a more fair and efficient system if you had it at the federal level.

  • 13:39:54

    NNAMDIEileen Appelbaum?

  • 13:39:55

    APPELBAUMYes. I would agree with that exactly. I do think it's a good idea for the states to be able to experiment. Many of our social insurance programs, like unemployment insurance, did begin as state programs and when we went to a national program, we were able to learn from this. President Obama has put $23 million into his 2012 budget for states that wish to initiate a paid family leave program to have some start up money.

  • 13:40:24

    NNAMDIDo you think that the United States, whether enacted by states or federally, should have guaranteed paid family leave? Call us, 800-433-8850. Here is Dave in Ellicott City, Md. Dave, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 13:40:40

    DAVEYeah. I don't think it should be federally mandated paid leave for anyone. You currently have FMLA which you choose to use, which will allow you to use your sick and/or your vacation time as paid time away. But to expect an employer to pay for everyone's decision to have a child, I think, is unrealistic, and it's unfair to employers. We can't afford as a country to continue to do that. It's a decision that you have to decide whether or not you can afford to do, and whether or not you can afford to take the time off.

  • 13:41:14

    NNAMDIEileen Appelbaum, what is the social good done by...

  • 13:41:18

    APPELBAUMI agree entirely with the caller that it should not be an employer responsibility. And, in fact, paid family leave in both California and New Jersey are not a mandate. In neither case is it a mandate. If you are a small employer, who under the FMLA can fire a worker whose kid gets hit by a bus and has to take off from work to be with that child, you still have the right to do that. But this is insurance, and in these two states, completely 100 percent paid by employees.

  • 13:41:48

    APPELBAUMAs I said, in New Jersey, it costs 30 cents a week and employees have said, yes, we're happy to pay that. It's 100 percent employee paid. If the mother has to take off to be with this child who has been injured, what difference does it make to any employer if she is able to collect partial wage replacement from a state insurance fund? So I agree, paid family leave should not be something that we ask employers to do. I totally agree with that.

  • 13:42:16

    APPELBAUMBut it should be a social insurance program, like unemployment insurance, that is available to people when they have a child. It should be pointed out that in our study of California, 40 percent of workers in jobs paying less than $20 an hour, and without health care, 40 percent of workers in poor quality jobs have absolutely no paid vacation, no paid sick days, no paid personal days, no paid time off at all that they could use to cobble together.

  • 13:42:46

    NNAMDIHow do you think -- how do you feel about that, Dave? Let insurance handle it the way unemployment insurance is handled?

  • 13:42:51

    DAVEWell, I don't think getting insurance involved in it is the answer either, because if you're talking about insurance, you're talking about regulation, you're talking about government. How is the money collected, who manages it, who regulates it? It's a whole 'nother layer of bureaucracy within a system that I don't think it's necessary.

  • 13:43:08

    NNAMDIIn other words, if people can't afford to lose their jobs, they shouldn't have children?

  • 13:43:13

    DAVEIf they can't afford to take off -- work off time, absolutely. You should not have children. Because guess what, when you have children, you have to take time off, either for the initial delivery and subsequent month or two afterwards, and then for being able to take the child to the doctor, et cetera. Those are all decisions that you have to make about whether or not can I afford that or can't I. And if you can't...

  • 13:43:38

    NNAMDIAnd you think that even if an employee agrees to pay for insurance in order to do that, the regulatory confusion that would result from that doesn't make it worth their while so they just shouldn't do it.

  • 13:43:50

    DAVEWell, number one, I think it would be subsidized. I don't think the employee's gonna be paying that much. So it's gonna have to be subsidized by either the employer and/or the government. And even if it weren't, you're still talking about a layer of bureaucracy to manage said polices and so forth that I don't think is going to be very efficient.

  • 13:44:12

    NNAMDIHere is Janet Walsh. Care to respond?

  • 13:44:15

    WALSHSure. I understand Dave's concerns, but I also think that it's important to bring into the conversation some of the costs of failing to act, and some of the benefits that we could see if we did have paid family leave. This has been studied in a lot of other countries, and Eileen's study on California actually brings in some very important new information. But what we've seen in other countries is that having paid family leave and paid parental leave is actually good for business and the economy.

  • 13:44:40

    WALSHThere is -- we've seen increases in productivity and profitability. We've seen the reduction of turnover costs. It's also very good for public health. It's been shown that increasing parental leave decreases infant mortality. It lengthens the amount of breastfeeding time. It reduces post-partum decreases, increases the rates of immunizations and health visits for babies. So these are very important social goods that we can see from having paid family leave in other places.

  • 13:45:11

    WALSHSo I think in addition to just the concerns about individual families, we need to look at the important benefits to society, the economy, and business.

  • 13:45:20

    NNAMDIThank you for your call, Dave. I have to take a short break, but before I do, Eileen, since we're on this issue, California and New Jersey, as you pointed out, are two states with public paid leave insurance programs. How do these programs work and what kind of effect have they had on employers and workers? Have they been strangled by regulatory bureaucracy as Dave would suggest?

  • 13:45:40

    APPELBAUMActually, on the paid family leave piece of it, there's nothing that affects the employer at all. All of it is on the employee to fill out the forms to apply to the state. The employer is notified, and their notification requirements, but the employer has no paperwork to do, has no money to pay out, and in contrast to what the caller said, it may be very expensive to do this as an individual company. But spread over the country as a whole, or spread over a state like New Jersey or California, actually very few people take family leave at any time even now that it's paid.

  • 13:46:17

    APPELBAUMAnd consequently, the costs are quite low and easily afforded by workers who are happy to pay the 30 cents or 60 days a week that it costs for family leave insurance.

  • 13:46:28

    NNAMDIGotta take a short break. When we come back, we will continue this conversation on paid parental leave. If the phone lines are busy, and a lot of you seem to be interested in it calling on the phone, go to our website,, send us a tweet @kojoshow or an e-mail to I'm Kojo Nnamdi.

  • 13:48:27

    NNAMDIWelcome back to our conversation about parental leave guaranteed by some 178 countries in the world, but not the U.S. or Papua or Swaziland. And we have a lot of callers on the line right now so I will defer to them shortly. But first, this comment from our website. "I am actually dealing with this issue right now at work. I was shocked to find out I will not get any maternity leave benefits after being at my company over 6 years, mostly on contract basis. I really think it is embarrassing on the part of my company and the U.S. in general.

  • 13:49:00

    NNAMDIHappy babies and women equal more productive women in the workplace, which has been proven. There are agencies in the D.C. area doing this and they say their productivity has gone up among women who were provided for in this matter." Has that also been the international experience, Eileen Appelbaum?

  • 13:49:17

    APPELBAUMYes. It has certainly been the international experience. In fact, most of the countries that have these more generous benefits, have them for the following reason. All of the wealthy nations invest in the education of their young people and they invest in their young women as well as their young men. And many countries have come to the conclusion that they can only beat first world countries high living standards if they put to work all of the brain power, all of this education, all of this investment that they've made in young women as well as young men.

  • 13:49:47

    APPELBAUMAnd then ask themselves, if we want young women contributing economically to the well being of the nation, what do we need to do to make it possible for them to do this and also to be responsible mothers and responsible family members?

  • 13:50:01

    NNAMDIHere is Rachel in Silver Spring, Md. Rachel, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 13:50:06

    RACHELThank you for taking my call. As a childless adult, but with (unintelligible), I'm wondering in discussions -- I know that this is very beneficial in other countries. I think it's a great idea, but I do wonder what kinds of discussions are going on in terms of, you know, what is family? I have two elderly parents. I have nieces whose parents work full time and whose schedule isn't as flexible as mine and I have a whole lot of pets.

  • 13:50:37

    RACHELAnd I'm not meaning to be sarcastic about that, it's just, you know, my life doesn't involve children. It involves my boyfriend's child.

  • 13:50:46

    NNAMDILet me have Janet Walsh respond to that. Janet Walsh?

  • 13:50:50


  • 13:50:51

    WALSHYeah. Thank you, Rachel, for your comment. I think that your concerns are right on the mark. And first of all, I think that the best solution for this country would be to have paid family leave, not just paid parental leave. So we see that we already have the family and medical leave act, which provides for job protected unpaid leave. And I think that the progress toward paid leave should also be in the inference of that. But it's important to also consider expanding the scope of family that's covered by either paid or unpaid family leave.

  • 13:51:23

    WALSHRight now, for the Family and Medical Leave Act, it's a pretty small circle of family that you could take time off for to care for if you were eligible under the FMLA. So, you know, parents and children, but not siblings, not grandparents, not domestic partners even. So one effort is to make the FMLA alone a more comprehensive law and the other would be to follow that up with paid leave.

  • 13:51:49

    NNAMDISpeaking of comprehensive -- and thank you for your call, Rachel. Speaking of comprehensive, Eileen Appelbaum, Massachusetts introduced a bill last month that would let parents take up to 24 hours per year in paid leave to tackle their children's academic issues. Are we seeing paid leave being used to address other problems as well? When I looked at 24 hours, at first, it looked like a very short period, and then I realized that sometimes it means just an hour or two to go to your child's school to deal with a discipline problem or some other problem.

  • 13:52:17

    APPELBAUMAbsolutely. For the millions of workers who have no access to paid personal days or paid vacation days that they can use for that purpose, this is really, really important. We call it small necessities. It is only 24 hours, but it's to deal with those small necessities that -- we all say how important it is for parents to be involved in their children's education, but you have a parent-teacher meeting and you can't get to it because you're working.

  • 13:52:44

    APPELBAUMIf you could take two hours off, as you've said, you have a child who is starring in the school play or is the soccer hero or whatever, you'd like to be at least at one of the games or at one of the plays. You need to take a child on an emergency basis to a doctor. You can't schedule that on a weekend, and you ought to be able to take 24 hours, no penalty from the employer, over a year. This is 24 hours over a year with no penalty from the employer and no deduction of your pay.

  • 13:53:15

    NNAMDIHere is Cynthia in Alexandria, Va. Cynthia, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 13:53:20

    CYNTHIAHi, thank you, Kojo. My former question was answered, thank you. I have another question. I am wondering, how is our lack of parental -- paid parental leave affecting middle-class birth rates? I work in an industry where I have access to very affluent folks and very non-affluent folks. And what I see -- and I'm a middle-class person so -- and what I see is that my middle-class friends and I have, you know, can barely bill for two kids, and those who have the luxury of being able to stay at home in the affluent classes have more, and then those in lower classes have -- seem to have more, too. So I'm wondering if this has had any effect on middle-class birth rates?

  • 13:54:10

    NNAMDIEileen Appelbaum, any idea?

  • 13:54:11

    APPELBAUMYeah. That's an interesting question. I don't know that it's been investigated. Certainly in all of the industrialized countries, as women become more highly educated and choose to work among the more highly educated women, we do see a decline in the birth rate. So there may be some relationship, but I don't know that there's a direct relationship.

  • 13:54:36

    NNAMDIThank you very much for your call, Cynthia. We move on now to Jim in Hyattsville, Md. Jim, your turn.

  • 13:54:45

    JIMHi. My wife and I are planning on starting a family soon. We're lucky enough to have good jobs with health insurance. Unfortunately, neither of us have access to paid maternity or paternity leave so I'm wondering what practical advice you have for a young family looking to tackle this issue.

  • 13:55:10

    NNAMDIBudget, budget, budget.

  • 13:55:13

    APPELBAUMThis is really a difficult issue. If you have vacation time, of course, and other time that you can save up, that's one way that people in higher pay jobs -- and usually employers that provide health care do provide paid vacation, paid sick days. So you might be able to cobble some time together that way. If the employer is big enough, you will have your 12 weeks of guaranteed unpaid family leave so at least your wife will have the opportunity to recover from the rigors of childbirth.

  • 13:55:46

    APPELBAUMBut it is going to be extremely complicated. She will have to back to work in 12 weeks. The one good thing is you will also have 12 weeks so you can tag team, if you need to, in terms of getting the baby settled. But it's -- it's really a difficult question for young parents in the U.S.

  • 13:56:04

    NNAMDIThank you very much for your call, Jim. We got this comment on our website. I'm a new mom currently home with my newborn on unpaid parental leave. I'm using all of my sick leave and then taking several months of unpaid leave in order to care for my child. I believe there should be a national policy to mandate paid parental leave, because if families who are on welfare are given funds to support their new families, both pre and post-natally, then working parents should be given the monetary support to be able to be able to stay home and care for their children.

  • 13:56:35

    NNAMDIJanet Walsh, Human Rights Watch interviewed 64 parents in the United States in your report on paid leave, which was released yesterday. Can you, in one minute or less, tell us one of the more moving stories you encountered during the survey?

  • 13:56:48

    WALSHSure. There was a woman named Diana who worked for a retail store. She had only six weeks of maternity leave. None of it was paid, because her employer wouldn't even let her use the sick days she had. She returned to work when she was not feeling physically ready, and after having accrued a lot of debts during her unpaid leave. Her daughter had severe asthma, and they thought cystic fibrosis, and her employer threatened to fire her every time she needed a little time off to bring her daughter to health visits.

  • 13:57:14

    WALSHShe has post-partum depression, couldn't get treatment for that because she couldn't get time off. And so this is an example of a woman who really suffered from the poor policies we have around working families.

  • 13:57:25

    NNAMDIAnecdotal evidence, 64 interviews -- 64 parents interviewed by Human Rights Watch. Janet Walsh is deputy director of the Women's Rights Division at Human Rights Watch. Thank you for joining us.

  • 13:57:38

    WALSHThank you.

  • 13:57:39

    NNAMDIEileen Appelbaum is senior economist at the Center for Economic and Policy Research. Thank you for joining us.

  • 13:57:45

    APPELBAUMIt's been a pleasure. Thank you.

  • 13:57:46

    NNAMDI"The Kojo Nnamdi Show" is produced by Brendan Sweeney, Tara Boyle, Michael Martinez, and Ingalisa Schrobsdorff, with help from Kathy Goldgeier and Elizabeth Weinstein. Diane Vogel is the managing producer. Our engineer today is Andrew Chadwick. Dorie Anisman has been on the phones. Podcasts of all shows, online archives, CDs and free transcripts are available at our website, Thank you all for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.

Related Links

Topics + Tags


comments powered by Disqus
Most Recent Shows