Americans often take pride in ways their nation differs from others. But one distinction - lack of a nationwide policy of paid maternity leave - is cited in a new report as an embarrassment that could be redressed at low cost and without harm to employers.
"Despite its enthusiasm about `family values,' the U.S. is decades behind other countries in ensuring the well-being of working families," said Janet Walsh, deputy director of the women's rights division of Human Rights Watch. "Being an outlier is nothing to be proud of in a case like this."
Human Rights Watch, based in New York, focuses most of its investigations on abuses abroad. But on Wednesday, with release of a report by Walsh on work/family policies in the U.S., it takes the relatively unusual step of critiquing a phenomenon affecting tens of millions of Americans.
The report, "Failing its Families," says at least 178 countries have national laws guaranteeing paid leave for new mothers, while the handful of exceptions include the U.S., Swaziland and Papua New Guinea. More than 50 nations, including most Western countries, also guarantee paid leave for new fathers.
Past efforts in Congress to enact a paid family leave law have floundered, drawing opposition from business lobbyists who say it would be a burden on employers.
Instead, there is the 1993 Family and Medical Leave Act, which enables workers with new children or seriously ill family members to take up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave. By excluding companies with fewer than 50 employees, it covers only about half the work force, and many who are covered cannot afford to take unpaid leave.
"Leaving paid leave to the whim of employers means millions of workers are left out, especially low-income workers who may need it most," said Walsh, citing federal estimates that only 10 percent of private-sector workers have paid family leave benefits.
With prospects for federal legislation considered dim for now, advocates of family-friendly workplace policies hope for progress at the state level and are looking closely at California and New Jersey, the only states that have paid-leave programs.
Both states have severe budget problems overall, but the leave programs - financed entirely through small payroll tax contributions by workers - are flourishing. Both offer six weeks of paid leave for workers taking time off to bond with a new child or to care for a seriously ill child, spouse or parent.
Human Rights Watch, which interviewed dozens of parents for its report, said lack of paid leave has numerous harmful consequences - fueling postpartum depression, causing mothers to give up breast-feeding early, forcing some families into debt or onto welfare.
Cathy Frazier of Mendota Heights, Minn., and her husband, Joe, believe that her severe bout of postpartum depression could have been avoided or at least eased if he had been able to take paid leave after the birth of their son six years ago.
The boy was born two months early, spent five weeks in the hospital, and remained in frail health after he went home. The couple said Cathy had to provide most of his care single-handedly while Joe was working long hours at a local public-access TV station.
"If Joe had been around, it would have been better," Cathy Frazier said in a telephone interview. "I might have gotten sick, but not like I was."
The depression was so severe that she was hospitalized for a week, and went into debt paying for therapy with a credit card because her insurance didn't cover it. Six years later, she said she still struggles with depression, taking medication and unsure about her prospects for accepting any job that would involve working outside her home.
Conversely, Jennifer Shankman of Malibu, Calif., was grateful to benefit from her state's paid leave program, which helped her take off a total of five months - three paid, two unpaid - after her son was born in September.
"It helped me to not feel as stressed," said Shankman, who's now back at work as a youth camp director. "It made a big difference mentally."
The Human Rights Watch report urges other states to emulate New Jersey and California by adopting paid leave programs. Any takers might get federal help - the Obama administration, in its recent budget proposal, proposed allocating $23 million to help states with startup costs for such initiatives.
One possible beneficiary could be Washington state. A paid leave measure was passed by lawmakers there in 2007, but never implemented due to lack of funding.
New Jersey's program started in July 2009 and its balance as of Dec. 31 was $39 million - robust enough so the state recently reduced workers' contribution by half. The maximum annual payment is now less than $18 instead of more than $35.
Through December, New Jersey had approved 44,972 claims - 91 percent of those filed - and paid out $105 million in benefits at an average of $471 a week.
California's program began in 2004 and is run by the State Disability Insurance plan, which collects 1.1 percent of pay from 13 million eligible workers. In 2009-10, the state paid out $469 million for 180,675 claims, with an average weekly benefit of $488.
In New Jersey, men make up about 12 percent of the parents seeking paid leave to bond with a new child. In California, men's share of the leave has risen from 17 percent to 26 percent since 2004.
In each state, some business leaders remain unenthusiastic, though there is no clamor to repeal the programs.
Michael Egenton, senior vice president of New Jersey Chamber of Commerce, said the impact had been relatively modest thus far. He attributed this to the recession and the desire of most workers to take paid leave only after conferring with their bosses to ensure the absence wouldn't be disruptive.
"With the tough economy, people are feeling, `I'm glad I have a job,'" he said. "We'll be interested in seeing where the program goes when the economy improves."
In California, Chamber of Commerce policy advocate Jennifer Barrera said the leave program - combined with other policies - "creates a significant administrative burden on employers, increases costs, and minimizes the ability of companies to expand hiring and create new jobs."
However, Eileen Applebaum of the Center for Economic and Policy Research, a liberal Washington think tank, said she and a colleague reached a different conclusion in a recent survey of 235 California businesses. She said the vast majority of employers found the leave program had a positive or neutral effect on productivity, profitability, turnover and worker morale.
Applebaum contended that business associations, rather than individual employers, were the main obstacle to paid-leave proposals in Congress and state legislatures.
"Employer associations in other countries help their companies be successful," she said. "In this country, employer associations largely exist to resist anything that might be good for workers."
In the European Union, paid parental leave varies from 14 weeks in Malta to 16 months in Sweden, which reserves at least two months of its leave exclusively for fathers. Most EU countries have maintained the provisions of their programs despite the recession.
Ellen Bravo of the Family Values at Work Consortium, a 15-state network working for family-friendly policies, said the bid to expand paid leave in the U.S. was hampered by the clout of corporate lobbyists and the relatively weak status of the labor movement.
"Family values often end at the workplace door," she said. "What we're fighting for isn't just modest - it's meager compared to what other countries have."