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President Barack Obama convened the first Working Families Summit in Washington this week to unite his administration, labor organizations and progressive groups around his domestic agenda.
Among the issues he hopes to pursue is a paid maternity leave for mothers. In his piece, Obama claimed, "The United States is the only developed country in the world without paid maternity leave."
That’s quite the statement. But is it true?
The Family Medical Leave Act requires employers with 50 or more workers to allow parents 12 weeks of job-protected leave annually to care for a newborn. While this means those individuals can take the time off without fear of losing their job, in most cases the leave is unpaid.
Three states — California, New Jersey and Rhode Island — offer paid family leave through employee-paid payroll taxes. And some employers offer the perk even though it’s not required. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 12 percent of private industry workers had access to some kind of paid family leave.
How does that compare to the rest of the world?
We asked the White House for the source of Obama’s claim. They pointed us to a report by the International Labor Organization, an agency of the United Nations.
The report looked at 170 countries where maternity benefit information was available. It found that only two don’t provide some kind of cash benefit to women during maternity leave: Papua New Guinea and the United States.
That seems pretty convincing in its own right, but as the report notes, not all benefits are equal. Some countries cap the payments at low levels or exclude large portions of the population from eligibility.
Obama specified in his statement that he was comparing the United States to developed countries, so that’s what we’ll focus on. For its part, the report labeled 41 countries and territories "developed economies."
It’s pretty clear that the United States provides the fewest benefits to the smallest percentage of its people. Of the developed countries, not only is it the only one that does not offer or require paid maternity leave, it is also mandates the shortest period of time off.
The United Kingdom and Australia provide the most time off, with both countries allowing a full year of leave, though not all of it is paid. At 13 weeks of maternity leave (all paid), Iceland has the second shortest leave, behind the U.S. at 12 weeks.
The International Labor Organization also categorizes each country by what percentage of the population actually receives cash benefits for maternity leave. Of the developed countries, the United States is in the bracket with the smallest percentages, with an estimated 10 to 32 percent of the population eligible for paid leave. No other developed country is below 33 percent.
Of the 41 developed countries, 17 provide paid time off for between 90 and 100 percent of their populations, including many Western European countries like Sweden, Switzerland and the U.K., but also Estonia and Czech Republic.
But some countries exclude certain portions of their populations from eligibility, making it far from a universal benefit. Temporary workers do not receive cash benefits in Canada, home workers don’t receive maternity leave in Norway and Switzerland, and some civil servants don’t get any in Japan. Canada also excludes migrant workers and individuals that own more than 40 percent of their business, and it requires women to have at least 600 hours of insurable employment to be eligible.
The result is that in some countries, large portions of the population don’t end up actually being covered. In Spain and Japan, between 33 and 65 percent of workers are covered, the fewest other than the United States.
The International Labor Organization also sets a standard for what countries should provide in a benefits package: 1) women should receive at least 14 weeks off; 2) they should be reimbursed at least two-thirds of their previous earnings and 3) the benefit should be paid almost entirely by the state through public funds or social security.
The United States is the only developed country to meet none of the benchmarks (and one of just 14 studied worldwide). But six other countries fall short of at least one goal.
Canada — Provides payments less than two-thirds of woman’s previous earnings (55 percent)
Denmark — Doesn’t pay for benefit entirely through public funds (mix of public and employer contribution)
Germany — Doesn’t pay for benefit entirely through public funds (mix of public and employer contribution)
Iceland — Maternity leave is less than 14 weeks (13 weeks)
Malta — Doesn’t pay for benefit entirely through public funds (mix of public and employer contribution)
Slovakia — Provides payments less than two-thirds of woman’s previous earnings (65 percent i.e. very, very close)
Obama said, "The United States is the only developed country in the world without paid maternity leave." The United States does not mandate cash benefits for workers on maternity leave at the federal level, and just a small fraction of its citizens live in states that require it or work for companies that provide it. In that regard, the United States is very different than the rest of the developed world, where at least some paid benefits exist in every country.
It's worth noting, however, that paid maternity leave is far from a universal benefit in many developed countries. In some, as many as one-third of workers aren't actually covered for cash benefits, and six countries don't meet all of the International Labor Organizations guidelines for providing benefits.
We rate Obama’s statement Mostly True.
Huffington Post, "Family-Friendly Workplace Policies Are Not Frills — They're Basic Needs," June 23, 2014
Email interview with Rachel Racusen, spokeswoman for President Barack Obama, June 23, 2014
PolitiFact Oregon, "Is paid maternity leave really the standard around the world?" May 18, 2013
International Labor Organization, "Maternity and Paternity at Work," 2014
Central Intelligence Agency, World Factbook: Appendix B International Organizations and Groups, accessed June 23, 2014
National Conference of State Legislatures, State Family and Medical Leave Laws, Dec. 31, 2013
Bureau of Labor Statistics, Employee Benefit Survey, March 2013
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