Can Australia learn from the United States on Paid Parental Leave?

By Emma Walsh, CEO Parents At Work

It’s well-known the United States lags stubbornly behind its fellow OECD nations when it comes to introducing a federally-funded, nation-wide approach to paid parental leave.

What’s less well-known is that there’s a growing number of U.S. states going it alone that do provide paid family leave.  Washington state recently passed its parental-leave law which introduces 12 weeks paid parental leave for both parents from 2020.

Whilst Australia does provide a federally funded paid parental leave scheme, in fact, the provisions offered are the least generous amongst the OECD nations.  And there’s no immediate plans in action by the federal government to improve it – for now.

Nonetheless, Australia and the U.S. can learn from each other to improve parental leave equality for both mums and dads.

I recently had the pleasure of interviewing Deborah Widiss, Professor of Law at the Indiana University Maurer School of Law in the United States who is currently residing in Melbourne, as part of a grant, to conduct research on Australia’s paid parental leave policy and legal supports for employees with family responsibilities. Widiss is investigating the implementation, barriers and facilitators to family-friendly work arrangements and paid parental leave.

Widiss will present her insights on ‘paid parental leave gender norms’ comparing Australia and the United Sates at a public lecture at the Australian National University Gender Institute in Canberra on May 16th, 2018 at 2.30pm.

Below is a summary of our interview highlighting the United States’ approach to parental leave, including why an increasing number of dads are accessing parental leave and what Australia can learn.

How many state based paid parental leave schemes are there in the US?

Currently there are five U.S. states, plus the District of Columbia, that have government-provided paid parental leave, as part of a larger “family” leave benefit. This includes California and New York, both of which have quite large populations. In fact, when you add it all up, about 25% of the U.S. population lives in a state with paid leave. There are also campaigns to enact paid family leave laws in several other states, so that number could grow quickly.



What positive parental leave progress is being made for both women and men in the United States (compared to Australia and other OECD nations)?

Well, that’s one of the things I’m really looking at in my research. As you know, Australia’s plan provides 18 weeks of parental leave to the “primary carer,” and two separate weeks of “Dad and Partner Pay,” or DAPP. Birth mothers are allowed to transfer a portion of the parental leave, but they almost never do. So in practice, the Australian government system functions as 18 weeks of maternity leave and 2 weeks of paternity leave.

The model being used in the United States is very different. Rather than a shared period of parental leave, the U.S. laws provide each parent an independent right to pay during time spent at home “bonding” with a new baby. And dads get just as much time as moms for this “bonding,” a period of four to twelve weeks, depending on the state. Then, in many of the states, birth moms have an additional period of benefits during the time that they need to heal from the medical effects of childbirth. So even though the bonding periods are short, it can add up to a reasonable amount of time. If both mom and dad take six weeks, and the mom receives an additional six weeks of medical benefits, it adds up to 18 weeks. In the states that provide 12 weeks to each parent, plus medical benefits, a family could receive a total of more than 30 weeks of benefits. The plans also provide families flexibility, in that the parents can provide whether they want to be at home at the same time or at different times, or a combination of the two.

That’s really interesting. But are men actually taking the parental leave?

Yes. As you might expect, women take more and longer leaves, but the rate of men taking parental leave has steadily risen. California was the first state to enact a paid family leave.

When it was put in place, in 2004, just 17% of the total claims were made by men. Now that percentage has more than doubled. And about 40% of the men who take parental leave under California’s law are taking the full six weeks permitted.

Why do you think you see men accessing parental leave at such higher rates than we do here in Australia?

Well, to answer that question fully, you would need to do a lot of careful statistical analysis that’s not really part of my research. But I do have some ideas. One thing is that the rate of pay is higher under the U.S. plans. Most provide 60-90% of a worker’s regular salary (up to a cap), whereas Australia’s government benefits are set at the minimum wage. Additionally, when you go to the websites for the state programs, a lot of them feature pictures of men with their babies. That’s a really simple thing, and it can obviously help both moms and dads realize that men have parental leave rights. Of course, another factor, which is somewhat less positive, might simply be that the leaves for moms are very short in many of these states.

Is Australia behind the United States and other nations when it comes to having adequate systems and policies in place to support gender equality, in particular for tackling pregnancy, parental leave and carers discrimination?

In one sense, Australia is clearly not behind the U.S., in that Australia has a national law guaranteeing paid parental leave and the U.S. does not. Private employers in Australia are also generally more generous in their parental leave policies, and it’s much more common here to have policies concerning workplace flexibility. It’s also important that Australia guarantees sick and carers days, another thing we lack in the U.S. That’s why I’m here to learn more about what’s working well and what the U.S. could do.

“But in talking to people here, I’ve come to realize that in the U.S, it’s much easier for employees to enforce antidiscrimination laws in court. That’s crucial, because no matter how good a policy looks on paper, if employees—particularly dads—know they will sidelined at work if they seek to take time off or ask for flexibility, the policy doesn’t actually achieve much.”

What kind of legal challenges are being debated in the United States around pregnancy and caring discrimination – are primary and secondary carers treated equally?

Some of them are what you might consider “classic” pregnancy discrimination cases, like women who are forced out of jobs when they announce that they are pregnant. But there have also been high-profile cases brought by men challenging employer policies that provide longer maternity leaves than paternity leaves. In fact, dads are challenging policies that look gender neutral – like polices that provide longer leaves to “primary” caregivers than to “secondary” caregivers – as a form of sex discrimination. Their argument is that if women are automatically assumed to be primary carers, and dads are not, then obviously the policy makes a sex-based distinction and that’s a form of sex discrimination. There haven’t been a lot of court decisions on that issue yet, but the federal agency that enforces our sex discrimination laws agrees such policies are discriminatory.

What can Australia learn from the United States schemes, specifically when it comes to encouraging men to take parental leaves? What should federal and state governments in Australia consider when it comes to work and family policy – and what should employers be doing more of?

When it comes to the government program, there are some small changes to DAPP that could help encourage more use. This could include giving men more flexibility as to when they use the leave, or the possibility of breaking the leave period into smaller portions. And of course, providing more than two weeks of benefits, and a higher level of salary replacement would likely help.

But the bigger change would be reconceptualizing the “shared” parental leave in ways that would really encourage men to take a significant period of parental leave. For the government program, that might mean extending the parental leave program and incorporating bonuses for parents who share the period more equally, or making a portion of the parental leave benefits an independent right for each parent that cannot be transferred. Private employers should consider abandoning the distinction that most policies make between “primary” and “secondary” carers. Instead, employers should simply provide all new parents—both moms and dads—a reasonable period of parental leave. That may sound like a big ask, but the U.S. experience makes clear it’s doable. What we see in the U.S. is a strong trend by companies to provide these kinds of equal leaves—and men are increasingly seizing the opportunity to take that some real time at home with their babies. Many men find that time to be very special, and it can help encourage greater involvement by dads in caretaking as the children continue grow.

Thanks so much for inviting me to talk with you. I’ve really enjoyed our conversation.

A reminder Deborah Widlis will be presenting on ‘paid parental leave gender norms’ comparing Australia and the United Sates at a public lecture at the Australian National University Gender Institute on May 16th, 2018 at 2.30pm.