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Will the US Pay Workers for Family Leave?



The United States does not require businesses to pay workers who are sick or caring for a new baby. President Obama and some other U.S. lawmakers want to change time off – or leave – policies. Supporters say paid leave is the right thing to do. Opponents say it will kill economic growth.

Recently a woman named Jenny Cheek became pregnant while she worked for the U.S. government in Washington, DC. She planned to take a few months off work to have and care for the new baby. She was surprised to learn her job would not pay her for the time off.

The U.S. federal government – like most American businesses – does not offer paid family leave to have a baby or care for family members. The federal government does, however, give workers a few weeks of paid vacation time every year.

So, instead of using her vacation time to go to the beach or go camping, Ms. Cheek did what many Americans do: she used her vacation time to stay home with her newborn.

After that, she used what is called leave without pay. In other words, she did not lose her job, but she did not earn any money either.

In the end, Ms. Cheek and her husband decided they would support their family on his paycheck alone. Jenny Cheek became a stay-at-home mom.

"(You) fixed the tire. Driving a dump truck -- that's hard work."

She says she loves to play trucks all day with her child. But she wonders why the U.S. cannot find a way to help people balance work with caring for a family.

"Almost every other country in the world has figured out a way to make this happen. There’s no way I could have been an attentive mom, a dedicated mom, in the same way if I was worried every single day about how I was going to pay the bills."

Map showing Indonesia, Australia and Papua New Guinea.

Map showing Indonesia, Australia and Papua New Guinea.

In 2014, the United Nations reported that Papua New Guinea and the U.S. are the only two -- out of 185 -- countries in the world that do not offer workers paid time off to care for newborns. However, several state governments and some private businesses in the U.S. have provided the benefits for their workers.

Another cost to companies

Not every American agrees that requiring businesses to pay workers for leave is a good idea.

Tricia Baldwin is a business woman. She is secretary and treasurer for her family's company. Reliable Contracting has been operating successfully for more than 80 years. She says paid leave is simply another government order, or mandate, that adds more costs to doing business.

"It's just adding another cost, another mandate to the company."

Ms. Baldwin’s company employs 400 workers. She says giving all of them paid leave would ruin her company. Instead, Reliable Contracting gives paid leave to employees who have stayed with the company for at least five years.

"We've been around for 80, over 85 years. We like to take care of our employees and make sure that they are successful.”

President Obama calls for change

President Obama supports paid leave for workers. Recently, he proposed a measure called the Healthy Family Act. It would allow workers to earn up to seven paid days of sick leave a year to care for themselves or family members.

Mr. Obama also wants Congress to approve a measure giving all workers six weeks of paid leave to have and care for a new baby.

U.S. lawmakers who support the proposed measure say paid leave is good for the families and for businesses. Representative Don Beyer says paid leave is an incentive to parents to return to the job. Mr. Beyer says training a new employee can cost a company a year’s worth of income.

But U.S. lawmakers who oppose the bill say they do not want to restrict businesses by requiring them to provide paid leave. They are offering a different measure. The Working Families Flexibility Act would allow employees to work extra hours and earn either time off or more pay.

What do other countries do?

The U.S. Department of Labor also supports changing paid leave policies.

U.S. President Barack Obama (L) applauds his nomination of Assistant Attorney General Tom Perez as his next labor secretary, at the White House in Washington, March 18, 2013.

U.S. President Barack Obama (L) applauds his nomination of Assistant Attorney General Tom Perez as his next labor secretary, at the White House in Washington, March 18, 2013.

U.S. Secretary of Labor Tom Perez published an article on his department’s website. He says the U.S. needs to learn from other countries.

Secretary Perez writes that Canada, the United Kingdom, Australia and Brazil guarantee between 15 and 24 weeks of paid leave for mothers with newborns. Some countries also offer other benefits such as paid leave for fathers to care for children.

I’m Christopher Jones-Cruise.

I’m Anna Matteo.

What is the paid family leave situation like in your country? Do you think governments should mandate work places to give new parents paid leave? Let us know in the comments section.

Carolyn Presutti reported this story from Washington. Anna Matteo wrote it for Learning English. Kelly Jean Kelly was the editor.

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Words in This Story

family leave n. a leave of absence from a job for a parent to care for a new baby

newborn n. a person or animal that has been recently born; newborn can also be used as an adjective

time off n. time for rest or recreation away from one's usual work or studies

mandate n. an official order to do something

incentive n. something that encourages a person to do something or to work harder

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