Lagging Behind the World on Paid Leave

D.C.’s proposed paid leave benefit would lead the nation – but it still wouldn’t match what the Slovak Republic already offers its citizens.

Earlier this month, the District of Columbia City Council began considering what could become the most generous paid family leave benefit in the country.

Under this proposal – which enjoys the support of both the Obama Administration and a majority of the City Council – all D.C. residents would be eligible for up to 16 weeks of paid family and medical leave to care for a new child, recover from an illness or care for a sick relative. Benefits would be funded through mandatory employer contributions, and the maximum benefit could reach as much as $3,000 a week, depending upon a worker’s salary.

If passed, the D.C. family leave benefit would mark an overdue turning point in the nation’s otherwise stingy attitude toward paid leave. But as generous as the D.C. benefit would be, most parts of the industrialized world – including countries such as Hungary, Greece, Japan and Germany – already offer benefits that are considerably more lavish.

As the chart below shows, the United States ranks dead last among OECD countries in the availability of paid maternity leave. Moreover, almost every other country in the OECD has made its paid leave benefit progressively more generous over the last 25 years. According to the OECD, the average paid leave available to new mothers has increased from an average of 17 weeks in 1970 to just over a year in 2014.

Source: OECD

An increasing number of countries have also begun offering paid paternity leave. In 2014, OECD nations – with the exception of the United States – offered an average of 10 weeks of paid paternity leave to new fathers. Most strikingly, the countries now offering paid paternity leave include such notoriously patriarchal places such as Korea and Japan.

Source: OECD

Given the extent to which America currently undervalues the provision of child care, it’s highly unlikely that the United States will be catching up to its international peers anytime soon. But the passage of the D.C. family leave bill would be a welcome – if belated – step in the right direction.

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Anne Kim

Anne Kim is a writer based in northern Virginia and the author of Abandoned: America’s Lost Youth and the Crisis of Disconnection, forthcoming in 2020. She was special projects editor at the Washington Monthly in 2013 and senior writer from 2015 to 2018.