February 12 2007 - A study by Drs Jody Heymann, Alison Earle, and Jeffrey Hayes, from McGill University and Harvard University has compared public policies for working families in 173 countries and found that while the US performs well in protecting individual employees from workplace discrimination on the basis of race, gender, age, and disability it is less effective in supporting family life. The Work, Family, and Equity Index, commissioned by the Project on Global Working Families and supported by the Ford Foundation, is the first to systematically analyze data from a wide range of government, private, and academic sources.
Researchers found that the US compares favourably with many other countries in having policies that ensure an equitable right to work and social insurance that has successfully reduced poverty in older people, although there has been less progress towards reducing childhood poverty than in other affluent nations.
The study found that 168 countries guaranteed paid leave to women in connection with childbirth; 98 offering 14 weeks or more. In a number of countries many women work in the informal sector where government guarantees do not always apply. However, researchers point out that the US's total failure to guarantee paid leave for mothers places it in a group with only four other nations: Lesotho, Liberia, Papua New Guinea, and Swaziland. The study found that 107 countries protect working women's right to breastfeed and at least 73 ensure paid breaks for this purpose; 65 support paid paternity leave; 31 offering 14 weeks or more. The US makes no such guarantees.
Researchers found that 137 countries mandate paid annual leave, with 121 guaranteeing a minimum of two weeks; 134 countries have legislation governing maximum working hours. Only 28 countries restrict or prohibit night work, but 50 have government-mandated evening and night wage premiums. The US has no such mandates or requirements. The study found that 117 countries guaranteed a pay premium for overtime work and the US rate of 150 per cent (or time and a half) came ninth in the table.
The study found that 49 countries guarantee leave for major family events such as marriage or funerals; 40 providing paid leave. Some 145 countries provide paid sick leave, with 127 providing a minimum of one week annually. More than 79 countries provide sickness benefits for at least 26 weeks or until recovery. The US provides only unpaid leave for serious illnesses through the FMLA, which does not cover all workers, and does not guarantee any paid sick days for common illnesses.
Researchers say these findings are significant for numerous reasons. Paid leave for childbearing and childrearing has been shown to improve children's health outcomes by making more time available to parents to form positive emotional bonds and provide essential care (for example, by facilitating breastfeeding, increasing uptake of immunizations). Family economic conditions are improved and employers benefit by reduced turnover, recruitment and training costs and improved productivity, job satisfaction and commitment.
Long or non-standard working hours and lack of leave significantly restricts parental involvement in children's education and development. The study found that 39 per cent of low-income working parents found it hard to get time to participate in school events and 18 per cent had little or no time with their children during the week. Researchers found that the number of parents working non-standard hours is increasing with over half doing so because they could not get another job, because the employer required it, or because of the nature of the work.
The study points out that parental involvement helps children recover more quickly from illnesses and injuries and is equally critical for mental health. Sick adults also fare better when they are cared for by family members. Poor working parents in the US are more likely to have three weeks or more a year of illness care giving to manage but are less likely than middle-income parents to have paid leave or flexibility at work.
Researchers argue that improving working conditions will decrease chronic family poverty and improve health and education with associated economic and social benefits. Study data do not support the notion that good working conditions lead to an increase in unemployment. Countries that provide longer parental and care-giving leave were found to be among the most economically competitive.