Paid Parental Leave: Why the US Falls Behind

Published on: Mar 8, 2020fb-roundtwitter-roundemail-round
Paid parental leaveDaniel Creel
The Story

The US is the only industrialized country in the world that doesn’t offer paid parental leave. You can read that again.

No thanks… 

Paid parental leave lets parents take time off from work to care for a new child after childbirth or adoption while still getting a paycheck. Although some companies offer this benefit to new parents, the option hasn’t always been available in the US. 

Why’s that? 

Until the early 20th century, companies didn’t consider maternity leave a must-have because women often didn’t work full-time. During this era, some women worked until they got married and had kids, leaving men as the main provider. 

Very different times.  

Very. But then came World War II. Many women joined the workforce full-time to both support the war effort in manufacturing war materials, and to support their families while the men were away at war. Even though men went back to their jobs when they returned, women felt empowered to join the workforce long-term. And with more women working, employers were forced to come to terms with pregnancy on the job.

What a concept. 

We know. This also came along at the same time of a new wave of feminism in the 1960s, when women fought for empowerment over their own lives and equality in society. After the Civil Rights Act of 1964 banned sex discrimination, government regulation around pregnancy followed in 1972 from the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. 

What happened then?

It banned employers from firing female employees because they’re pregnant. And required employers to give pregnant women the same health insurance or disability benefits that they give to employees who are temporarily disabled. The ball starting rolling and in 1978, the Pregnancy Discrimination Act (aka PDA) made it illegal to discriminate on the basis of pregnancy, childbirth, or related medical conditions. What the PDA left out: parental leave.  

I’m sensing a trend here...

It might be. After that, the US saw a series of parental leave bills that never made it out of the gate (like the Family Employment Security Act of 1984). But these bills did get lawmakers talking more about parental leave and set the stage for future legislation.


In 1986, there was a new bill on Capitol Hill: the Family and Medical Leave Act. The FMLA granted women and men 12 weeks of unpaid, job-protected leave to care for a new child, as well as to take care of themselves if they have a serious health condition. It passed in both the House and Senate but then-President George HW Bush vetoed it...twice. He said he supported parental leave, but only if it was voluntary. But in 1992 he ran for re-election against then-Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton, who supported the FMLA. After Clinton won, it was the first piece of legislation he signed into law. The FMLA has some restrictions, like requiring employees to work for their employer for at least a year and at a company that has at least 50 employees.

Where do things stand now?

Paid family leave is still out of reach for many Americans. The United Nations has a global standard of 14 weeks of maternity leave and a requirement to pay new moms at least two-thirds of their salary – many countries have hit this standard. But that doesn’t include the US, which is the only developed country in the world that doesn’t offer paid parental leave.


That's the question everyone and their mother (and father) wants to know. We get into that, and the impact paid leave policies have on the economy and your health, in theSkimm app. Every week, the app goes deep on a different news topic to give you the context you need to understand what's going on in the world. Download the app now and you get the first week free.

live smarter.

Sign up for the Daily Skimm email newsletter.

Delivered to your inbox every morning and prepares you for your day in minutes.