If Brewer had lived in Norway, she would have been entitled to take 47 weeks off with full pay. If she had lived in Vietnam, she could have received at least partial pay for six months. If she lived in Nigeria or Cambodia, two of the least-hospitable countries to working mothers, she would have been entitled to some paid leave.
According to a 2011 Human Rights Watch report that examined workplace policies in more than 180 countries, 178 guaranteed new mothers paid leave and more than 50 guaranteed new fathers the same perk. Among the handful offering no paid leave: Swaziland, Papua New Guinea and the United States.
Advocates of family-friendly workplace policies have long lamented the shortcomings of the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), the only federally mandated policy covering families in the workplace.
In Brewer’s case, her nine-person organization did not need to comply, because the FMLA covers only businesses with 50 or more employees. The FMLA didn’t protect Losia Nyankale, either. The 29-year-old D.C. mother had been working full-time for just under a year at an Annapolis restaurant when she took a six-week maternity leave.
When the manager who had approved leave was replaced, the new manager told Nyankale he was too busy to see her or to add her back to the schedule, she said.
“Oh, it was stressful,” said Nyankale, who also had a toddler at the time and had to cut short her leave to take another job, with fewer benefits and unpredictable hours. “It certainly didn’t make for that magical first weeks with your baby.”
Despite its limitations, the FMLA has been a boon to many. About 60 percent of the U.S. workforce is covered by the policy, according to the Department of Labor. The act’s provisions have been used more than 100 million times to help workers manage family health crises and newborn care, according to the National Partnership for Women and Families.
To many employers, this is as far as a government mandate needs to go.
“The priority now should be on economic growth, on getting people jobs that they can consider taking leaves from,” said John Engler, president of the Business Roundtable and former Michigan governor (R).
Elizabeth Milito, counsel for the National Federation of Independent Business, said extending the FMLA to cover small businesses would inhibit flexibility and impose heavy financial burdens. “Many of our members are mom-and-pops; they have 10 to 15 employees,” she said, noting that without human resources departments, the cost of compliance is prohibitive.
Moreover, she said, small business owners don’t need a mandate, because “they know their employees and their families. . . . They go above and beyond to help them.”