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Obama sick of US lagging in employee leave policies

Other industrialized countries surpass the US when it comes to policies on sick leave, parental leave and child care

President Barack Obama touted the United States’ comeback from a crippling recession during his State of the Union address on Tuesday, but he also called attention to some of the ways in which the country needs to improve — including its inadequate sick-leave, parental-leave and child-care policies.

“Today, we’re the only advanced country on Earth that doesn’t guarantee paid sick leave or paid maternity leave to our workers,” Obama said.

More than 60 percent of U.S. families with children have two working parents, a drastic increase from the 40 percent of dual-income households in 1965, according to a 2014 report by The Council of Economic Advisors. Yet the U.S. ranks third to last among Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) member countries in its public spending on family benefits [PDF], beating only Korea and Mexico.

Here’s how the U.S.' sick-leave, parental-leave and child-care policies compare with countries around the world:

Paid sick leave

While some Americans are eligible for paid sick leave from their employers, Obama pointed out that 43 million workers get none at all. “And that forces too many parents to make the gut-wrenching choice between a paycheck and a sick kid at home,” he said.

Citing the paid sick leave laws passed on November ballots in many U.S. cities and states, Obama called on Congress to pass a bill that would guarantee seven days of paid sick leave to all Americans, calling it “the right thing to do.”

According to a 2009 study by the Washington-based Center for Economic and Policy Research [PDF], the U.S. is the only industrialized country that doesn’t guarantee its workers any paid sick leave.

Both Australia and Germany, for example, mandate that employers must pay workers their full salaries for up to six weeks of sick leave; Norway offers 16 paid sick days, Denmark offers two weeks and Iceland offers 12 days, according to the study.

The only law on the books allowing Americans to take extended, medical-related absences is the Family Leave Medical Act (FMLA), which states that full-time workers at companies with 50 employers or more may take up to 12 weeks off work to care for family members — unpaid. Part-time workers or those working at small businesses are out of luck.

At the local level, some U.S. states and cities – including New York City, Seattle and Washington, D.C. – have passed laws guaranteeing paid sick leave. In his speech on Tuesday, Obama encouraged others to follow suit.

Paid parental leave

The U.S. and Papua New Guinea are the only two countries in the world that do not offer paid maternity leave, according to a 2014 report by the International Labor Organization (ILO), the United Nations agency charged with promoting labor rights.

While Americans are likely familiar with Nordic countries’ generous maternity and paternity leave policies, the ILO said that 45 percent of all the world’s countries pay new mothers two-thirds of their salary or more for at least 14 weeks.

Brazil, Colombia, China, Morocco and Zimbabwe all offer 14 weeks of maternity leave at full salary. Others offer full salary for the majority of a mother’s time off. Ireland, for example, pays new mothers' full salary for 26 out of 42 allotted weeks of leave. The United Kingdom offers new mothers 52 weeks off at 90 percent of pay.

While some U.S. companies offer full-time employees paid parental leave, many hourly and part-time workers do not receive such benefits, forcing new mothers to cobble together unused vacation days and unpaid time off through the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) in order to recover from childbirth.

Like paid sick leave, some U.S. states – including California, Rhode Island and New Jersey – have passed laws providing paid family leave. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., has proposed federal legislation calling for employers to give new parents three months of time off at two-thirds’ salary, but her bill hasn’t made it through Congress.

Obama said Tuesday night that he would seek $2 billion from Congress to encourage states to create more paid-family and medical-leave programs.

Universal child care

Obama said in his speech that in the many American households where both parents work full-time out of economic necessity, “we need affordable, high-quality child care more than ever. It’s not a nice-to-have — it’s a must-have.”

The president then made reference to a little-known fact — that universal child care, another benefit offered by many other industrialized nations but passed over in the U.S. — was guaranteed during World War II.

In the effort to get women to enter the workforce and keep U.S. industries afloat while men were off at war, U.S. lawmakers realized there was a lack of child care options available to women with younger children. So from 1943 to 1946, the federal government funneled wartime stimulus funds from the Lanham Act to set up child care centers in more than 600 communities, charging mothers just a few dollars a day to drop off their children, according to a University of Arizona study on the program’s effects [PDF].

The U.S. hasn’t seen anything like it since. Though Congress passed a bill in 1971 that would have established a similar federally funded program for child care, it was vetoed by President Richard Nixon, who thought it was “against the family-centered approach.”

That one parent often has to forfeit a return to work because of the expense of child care has made the policies of other countries look enviable. In France, for example, the government provides subsidized day care and universal preschool starting at the age of three. In Germany, the government offers a generous monthly allowance for new parents to care for their children at home rather than putting them into government-subsidized childcare.

President Obama proposed creating “more slots” in child care centers and a new tax cut of up to $3,000 per year per child to allow for child care, but did not offer further details.

“It’s time we stop treating childcare as a side issue or a women’s issue, and treat it like the national economic priority that it is for all of us,” he said.

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