Let’s talk about a sad reality: the United States is the only country in the developed world that doesn’t offer paid maternity leave for new mothers. Let that sink in… the only developed country. The Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) is the law that most new moms in the U.S. are able to rely on. What the FMLA does exactly is enable a new parent to take 12 weeks of unpaid leave after the birth or adoption of a child. Unpaid is the operative word – the FMLA doesn’t require paid leave during that time, but rather just states that a woman’s position can’t be terminated if she takes time off after having a baby. The FMLA also doesn’t cover everybody; it only covers individuals who have been at their job for over a year, and whose employer has more than 50 employees who live within 75 miles of the office. Needless to say, maternity leave options in the U.S. leave a lot to be desired.
“According to a study commissioned by the U.S. Department of Labor, nearly one in four mothers (23 percent) are back at work within two weeks of giving birth,” says Vicki Shabo, National Partnership Vice President for Workplace Policies and Strategies. “For women with less than a high school education, fewer than one-fifth had access to paid leave of any kind in connection with the birth of a child, according to 2008 census data, and that figure had not improved in the previous 50 years! Only California, New Jersey, Rhode Island, New York, the District of Columbia, Washington and Massachusetts have paid family and medical leave policies in place.”
If you look look outside of the United States, international policies for maternity leave are far more generous. Out of 193 countries in the world, only a small few do not offer a national paid leave policy: New Guinea, Suriname, a smattering of South Pacific island nations, and the United States.
As for which countries boast enviable policies, data provided by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OCED) gives us a good glimpse. Even though countries like the U.K. offer 52 weeks of maternity leave, 39 of those weeks are only partially paid. The OCED’s ranking, factors in time off and percentage of pay received while on leave; the ultimate ranking indicates how much full-pay time off new parents receive. The countries with the most generous policies are largely in Eastern Europe, which the Economist notes is because “governments spooked by rapidly shrinking populations are trying to bribe couples into having more babies.” Whatever the reason, the U.S. ranks lowest on the OCEDs list. In contrast, here are the five countries with the best maternity leave policies.
Estonia: 85 weeks of full pay
Estonia offers 166 weeks of leave (that’s three years!), with 51% of full pay. When all is said and done, that breaks down to 85 weeks of full-paid leave. When new moms return to work, they also receive breastfeeding breaks.
Hungary: 71 weeks of full pay
Women in Hungary receive 144 weeks of leave, with 44% of full pay. That nets out to 71 weeks of leave at full pay, which is a little over a year.
Bulgaria: 65 weeks of full pay
According to the OCED, Bulgaria provides what works out to be 65 weeks of leave at full salary. After six months of leave, mothers can also choose to pass along their remaining days to fathers. Additionally, women get 45 days of leave before their due date.
Czech Republic: 53 weeks of full pay
New moms in the Czech Republic are able to get up to 53 weeks of leave at full pay. It is obligatory to take at least 14 weeks — including six weeks prior to the baby’s birth.
Latvia: 53 weeks of full pay
Latvia is struggling with population growth; since joining the E.U. one-fifth of its population has left the country to live elsewhere in Europe. Arguably to counterbalance that attrition, maternity leave policies in Latvia are very generous, including 53 weeks of full pay, which can be transferred to the father under particular circumstances.
While nations around the world are setting examples of comprehensive maternity leave, many states and private companies in the U.S. are taking matters into their own hands. As Shabo says, “New leadership in Congress should prioritize national paid family and medical leave and take their cues from successful policies currently in place in six states and the District of Columbia.” And while it doesn’t appear that these changes are happening anytime soon on the federal level, there is hope, yet: state governments, certain municipalities, and progressive companies like Spotify and Etsy (which offer six months) are leading the charge for a new normal in the future of maternity leave.