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Papua New Guinea and the United States are the only countries not offering new mothers some form of paid maternity leave. Family friendly policies are important as they enable parents to balance work and home commitments more effectively while they have also been shown to provide children with a better start in life. “Maternity leave allows mothers to recover from pregnancy and childbirth and to bond with their children”, according to a 2019 UNICEF report which also states that “well-paid, protected leave from work helps female employees maintain their earnings and attachment to the labor market”.
The report used data from both Eurostat and the OECD, naming Sweden, Norway and Iceland as the three countries with the most family-friendly policies in place. When it comes to maternity leave specifically, the report defines it as a “job-protected leave of absence for employed women, typically starting just before the time of childbirth”. Estonia offers the most paid full-rate equivalent maternity leave (total length of leave entitlement multiplied by the average wage replacement rate) at 82 weeks – far ahead of advanced economies such as Canada, the United Kingdom, and naturally the United States.
Although the World Health Organization recommends a minimum of 16 weeks of maternity leave, the U.S. offers zero. It is important to mention that the Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993 (FMLA) allows new mothers who have worked in an organization with at least 50 employees to take up to 12 work weeks of unpaid leave during any 12-month period. This is however dependent on a list of requirements such as the mother in question working for at least 1,250 hours over the last 12 months. Nevertheless, some U.S. states have enacted their own legislation to support mothers and have addressed the FEMA eligibility requirements. Despite the progress at state level, there was very little change in the number of U.S. women taking maternity leave over the last 20 years.
This chart shows the total weeks of paid leave available to mothers (full-rate equivalent).
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