(WOMENSENEWS)–Working parents in the United States have something horribly in common with counterparts in Papua New Guinea and Swaziland: No legal right to paid family leave.

At least 178 countries have paid leave for new mothers, according to research by professors Jody Heymann of McGill University and Alison Earle of Northeastern University.

It’s time the United States caught up with them.

"Paid leave pays off," says Janet Walsh, deputy director of the Women’s Rights Division of Human Rights Watch, the New York-based rights monitor.

The Family Leave Insurance Act would guarantee workers 12 weeks of paid leave for the birth of a child, for adoption of a child, to care for a family member with a serious health condition and in cases of serious health concerns of the individual employee.

Funded by small contributions from employees–and possibly also from employers–it would be one of the proposed expansions of the Family Medical Leave Act. That law allows women and men to take three months of unpaid leave after the birth of a child or a family member’s serious illness if they work for a company with 50 or more employees.

Failed Attempts

During the last few years, similar bills to expand the Family Medical Leave Act–proposed by U.S. Representatives Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., Carolyn Maloney, D-N.Y., Pete Stark, D-Calif., and Lynn Woolsey, D-Calif.–have foundered. Stark plans to lead the way again in 2012, but passage looks doubtful in the current Congress.

That’s a good reason to change our representation in November. We need to vigorously push for leaders with real family values.

My home state of California is one of only two states with a paid family leave law. This law has demonstrated "either a positive effect or no noticeable effect" on productivity, income, employee retention and morale, according to a 2011 study by researchers Eileen Appelbaum and Ruth Milkman.

The vast majority of businesses interviewed said the program had not resulted in any cost increases.

New Jersey is the other state that has enacted a law to create insurance programs for employees funded by employee payroll tax contributions. It enables workers to take up to six weeks of partially paid leave.

These laws ensure that workers taking family leave can receive some wage replacement.

Last year, the report "Failing Its Families: Lack of Paid Leave and Work Family Supports in the U.S.," released by the Women’s Rights Division of Human Rights Watch, highlighted how the lack of paid family leave, along with inflexible workplaces, can increase American sickness and poverty and exacerbate discrimination against women.

Perils of Unpaid Leave

Authors interviewed 64 parents and filled the report with testimonies about the perils of taking unpaid leave: debt or bankruptcy; illness; post-partum depression; termination, demotion or reduced pay upon returning to work.

One of the most significant findings was the relationship of childbirth to poverty. Authors cited Amy Rynell’s finding that 8.6 percent of households enter into poverty when a child is born, a figure rising to 24.6 percent when a woman heads the household.

Authors showed how cost-effective paid-leave programs are in other countries and how lagging the United States appears internationally.

Data from the U.S. Department of Labor, meanwhile, indicate that only 11 percent of American workers have paid family leave available to them. In some cases, parents can use paid sick leave or vacation time for parental leave.

But only 67 percent of U.S. workers have paid sick days, 40 percent have temporary disability and more than a quarter lack paid vacation days. Access to these benefits varies widely.

A 2010 nationwide survey of registered voters found that 76 percent of respondents favored laws on paid family leave.

These are tenuous times for working women and their families. By some reckonings, the middle class disappeared in 2011. Lawmakers need to do more.

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Susan Rose is a former executive director of the Los Angeles City Commission on the Status of Women and is retired from the Santa Barbara Country Board of Supervisors. Currently, she serves as vice chair of the Santa Barbara Human Rights Watch Committee.

For more information:

Proposed expansions of Family Medical Leave Act:

Human Rights Watch report:

Leaves that Pay: Employer and Worker Experiences with Paid Family Leave in California; The National Council for Research on Women:

Causes of Poverty, Findings from Recent Research, by Amy Rynell:

It’s Official: Government Stats Show the Middle Class Is Dead: