Who Cares About Families?: Four Sisters. Four Different Treatments.

Came across a friend’s family recently where all four sisters had just had babies, but the parents faced four different levels of government support, despite living in the same (developed) country!  Not surprisingly the sisters are angry.  Should we be concerned?

All the women were working in the US, but they work for an Australian, Austrian, Canadian and a US firm.  I’ve simplified the rules, but here are the basic differences.

Australian Rules

The woman working for the Australian company is entitled to 18 weeks of paid leave (at minimum wage levels) and 52 weeks of total leave.  She can also get another 52 weeks of unpaid leave if her partner does not take his leave.

Austrian Rules

The woman working for the Austrian company is entitled to 16 weeks of paid leave at 65% of her salary and 52 weeks of total leave.

Canadian Rules

The woman working for the Canadian company is entitled to a minimum of 17 weeks of paid leave at 55% of her average wage.  However, because she is working in the US subsidiary, she is not entitled to the 52 weeks of leave if she worked in Canada.  In fact, the company has only just changed its maternity leave policy to make it more competitive with its European competitors.

US Rules

The woman working for the US company is entitled to NO MANDATORY BENEFITS and only 2 weeks of paid leave.  However, like many US companies, she is actually allowed 12 weeks of unpaid time, before she has to return to work.

These US rules rank the US level with Papua New Guinea, Swaziland, Liberia and Lesotho.

Who Cares About Families?

Although rules vary within European countries, the Austrian rules are typical and are consistent with the strong social values of Europe – families matter.  It takes time for a mother to recover from childbirth.  It takes time for a mother and baby to bond.  It takes time for a mother and family to adapt to the shock to family routines that a new baby causes (especially the first one) and to develop new routines that work for the baby, the mother and the father too.  A year seems to be sufficient for most mothers and families to adapt.  A year seems a short time in the life of the family to adapt, especially when much of the financial burden still remains with the family, not the firm or the government.

The Australian rules have been upgraded quite recently and now roughly match those, but also begin to acknowledge the important role that fathers can play in families, and mothers in family economics.  These days many women earn as much or more than their partners.

The Canadian situation used to resemble the US position, and this woman feels lucky!  Her first baby was born under US rules, so she feels very fortunate to have the new improved benefits that her employer has discretionary applied.

The US case is a disgrace for a civilised, rich economy, but rather typical of its whole approach to social welfare:  individuals, not the state, are responsible for themselves.  Mothers are forced to give their babies up to expensive child care, get grandparent support (not generally available because people work full time till their late 60s or 70s), or drop out of the workforce (an option for the rich mainly).

Most mothers are unaware of the rules in other countries.  This case is relatively unique.  But it highlights how our societies do – or don’t – care about families, which are regarded as the foundation for good childhood, regardless of the education system.  The US – once the leader of innovative social practices – is not only well off the pace here.  It is near the bottom of the pack.  If I were a young woman, I’d want to have my babies somewhere else.

(Thanks Maria, for this idea for the blog.  You are right.  It’s a big issue.)


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