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U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders defended his record as a democratic socialist by calling for the United States to bring its family leave policy in line with other countries.
"You see every other major country saying to moms that, when you have a baby, we're not gonna separate you from your newborn baby, because we are going to have medical and family paid leave, like every other country on Earth," he said during the first Democratic presidential debate.
We will put aside the narrower question of medical leave and focus on family leave.
United States lags behind on paid leave
A spokesman for Sanders pointed to data from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, which studied paid maternity leave for about 34 OECD countries -- advanced nations -- and seven additional European Union countries. On average across OECD countries, mothers are entitled to 17 weeks of paid maternity leave. However, the United States is the only country to offer no statutory entitlement to paid leave on a national basis.
Another widely respected source of data on this topic is the International Labor Organization, an agency of the United Nations. It found in 2014 that out of 170 countries, all but two provide cash benefits to women during maternity leave: the United States and Papua New Guinea.
In the United States, under the federal Family Medical Leave Act, employers with 50 or more workers must allow parents 12 weeks of job-protected leave annually to care for a newborn or to care for a family member with a serious medical condition. While that law protects their job, in most cases the leave is unpaid.
Some employers choose to offer paid leave. About 13 percent of workers had access to some kind of paid family leave in 2014, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
That’s a very low rate compared to the rest of the developed world.
Of 41 other developed economies, the United States also mandates the shortest period of unpaid leave — 12 weeks. Meanwhile, the United Kingdom and Australia each allow a full year off (though not all of it is paid).
But some countries exclude certain groups of workers such as those who hold temporary or part-time positions or work on farms, as domestics, police, armed forces or civil servants. In some cases, such as domestic workers, the laws don’t explicitly explain if the leave policies apply or not, while explicit legal exclusion of farm workers has been identified in at least 27 countries.
The International Labor Organization recommends that countries provide these benefits: women should receive at least 14 weeks off; they should be reimbursed at least two-thirds of their previous earnings; and 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.
Why does the United States lag behind
Explaining the reasons why the United States lags behind other countries is rooted in historical and political factors.
We interviewed Vicki Shabo, a vice president at the National Partnership for Women and Families, one of many organizations advocating for more family leave for both women and men.
Here is a graphic from the partnership showing the timeline of how other nations established paid leave:
The United States has a weaker tradition of social welfare compared with other countries such as Germany. There was a push for family leave during times of war in Europe, when men went off to war and women were needed in the workforce. Although women did go to work in the United states during World War II, they generally went back into the home at the end of the war.
"We missed this historical window and never really caught up," Shabo said.
In some other countries, unions have played a stronger role in creating leave policies.
Experts said that the political power of the business lobby has helped prevent changes to family leave law.
"The absence of paid leave, paid vacation, and national health insurance all reflect a long history of a business-dominated political economy," said Ruth Milkman, a sociologist at City University of New York.
There has been scant legislative action to change the policy here.
In March, U.S. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., introduced the Family and Medical Insurance Leave Act to allow 60 qualified caregiving days per year, but it hasn’t received a vote. Sanders is one of 19 co-sponsors, all of them are Democrats. (Sanders is an independent in the Senate but running for president as a Democrat.)
Sanders said "every other major country" has family paid leave.
Two comprehensive studies of multiple nations backup Sanders’ point that the United States is an outlier when it comes to paid family leave. One study found that the United States is the only country to offer no statutory entitlement to paid leave on a national basis. A separate study of more countries found that the United States and Papua New Guinea were the only two not to provide cash benefits to women during maternity leave.
The only caveat here is that family leave isn’t a universal benefit in some countries, due to exclusions on certain workers.
We rate this claim Mostly True.
CNN, Democratic presidential debate, Oct. 13, 2015
International Labor Organization, "Maternity and Paternity at Work," 2014
Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, Trends in parental Leave Policies since 1970 and update, 2015
Institute for Women’s Policy Research, "Paid Parental Leave in the United States: What the Data Tell Us about Access, Usage, and Economic and Health Benefits," January 2014
Bureau of Labor Statistics, Employee Benefit Survey, March 2014
National Partnership for Women and Families, Paid leave graphic, 2015
U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, Family values agenda, 2015
U.S. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand press release, "Senator Gillibrand Announces Legislation to Provide Every American Worker With Paid Leave," March 18, 2015
PolitiFact, "Barack Obama says United States only developed country without paid maternity leave," Jan. 21, 2015
Interview, Warren Gunnels, U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders campaign spokesman, Oct. 13, 2015
Interview, Vicki Shabo, National Partnership for Women and Families vice president, Oct. 14, 2015
Interview, Ruth Milkman, City University of New York sociology professor, Oct. 14, 2015
Interview, Jeffrey Hayes, Institute for Women’s Policy Research study director, Oct. 14, 2015
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