The Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) is the only federal recognition of protected family leave we have in the United States — and it doesn’t apply to everyone. About 41 percent of American workers are not eligible for FMLA protection, according to the U.S. Department of Labor.
If you ever start a family, have to recover from a serious illness, or need to care for an ailing family member, you’re guaranteed up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave in a 12-month period only if you work for a company with 50 or more employees and have been employed there at least a year (among other limitations). Since FMLA’s inception in 1993, American men and women have used it more than 200 million times, the National Partnership for Women & Families estimates.
But make no mistake, FMLA is far from perfect.
In fact, when it comes to comparing parental leave worldwide, it’s clear that the United States is an embarrassing outlier, as shown in a study by the Pew Research Center. When the study compares American laws to 37 other industrialized nations, the United States sits at the bottom, with zero weeks of required paid leave.
Meanwhile, the median worldwide is five to six months of paid leave. (The cream of the crop? Estonia, where parents get a whopping 108 weeks of paid leave.) In most countries with paid leave, governments — not businesses — pay their citizens during parental leave, according to Pew. But here in the U.S., it is the burden of private companies to make the choice to pay you when you’re off.
According to the Department of Labor, about 48 percent of employees report receiving full pay (typically through a combination of vacation days, sick time, or other paid time off hours), and about 17 percent report receiving partial pay.
There’s an argument to be made for changing workplace culture from the inside, instead of depending on federal law to institute changes. While some smaller companies may not be able to foot the bill for paid parental leave, it’s not unreasonable to expect certain wealthy companies — say, the 500 richest American companies (which account for $12.5 trillion in revenues, $945 billion in profits, and $17 trillion in market value) — to provide for their employees.
When we looked at the Fortune 500, we found a wide range of parental leave benefits, from fully paid leave to no paid time at all.
“Pregnancy is NOT a disability, an illness, or a vacation."
There were some standout companies that provide for their employees beyond what the federal law requires. Take Facebook, for example, where employees get 16 weeks of paid time off and “have the ability to take that time intermittently during the first year,” says Genevieve Grdina, a Facebook spokesperson, who explained Facebook’s generous leave program last year when we were putting together our list of Best Companies for Women. “We see our parental leave policy as a way to support the family as a full unit — even women who don’t work here benefit from a policy that allows paternity leave.”
Of the 500 companies we contacted, many, including Walmart (with 2.2 million employees and a revenue of $485.65 billion) and General Motors (216,000 employees and a revenue of $155.93 billion) either declined to participate (31) or never responded to requests for paid parental leave information (297).
Finally, there are also companies that opt not to provide paid parental leave. While some cobble together salary replacement with a mosaic of benefits like short-term disability insurance, sick pay, and vacation time, it’s worth noting that a pregnancy is not a disability, an illness, or a vacation.
Some companies require their employees to pay into their disability insurance for coverage. But even when disability insurance is covered by the company, it does not apply to men or parents of adopted children. It’s simply not the same thing as paid parental leave.