Americans Left Out with Lack of Leave
Published on: May 10, 2021
Garret only has a week of paid vacation, so he hasn't taken his family away on a decent vacation for years.
Mary just gave birth, but she has to go back to work in a month and hire a babysitter.
Seth feels ill, but he doesn't have paid sick time, so he's working with a fever.
For American workers, these scenarios are all too familiar.
The U.S. is the only advanced economy that does not federally mandate any paid vacation days or holidays. Paid vacation time that's offered is sparse compared to other countries.
The U.S. is the only industrialized country in the world which does not offer a paid family medical leave program.
There is no federal requirement that American employers provide paid sick leave.
Hard-working Americans are excluded from what's considered basic and necessary in all industrialized nations. Our mental and physical well-being and the health of our families are left out of the equation.
We wanted to get to the bottom of the real numbers and attitudes on paid and unpaid time off.
We asked 950+ Americans:
- How much sick time they're given.
- How many vacation days they're allotted per year.
- How much maternity or paternity leave those with kids were eligible for.
- Whether they used all their available time.
- If they felt the amount of time was adequate.
Plus, we threw in a few "Did you know?" questions to gauge their knowledge about other countries' paid time off policies.
First up, let's take a look at the numbers on parental leave.
America's Exceptional Parental Leave
A newborn bundle of joy (and fair share of fuss).
Parenthood is a time of unparalleled preciousness and, let's face it, sleeplessness. Babies demand our full attention, which is a 24/7 job.
And, what about that other job? You know, the one you are taking a break from to take care of that adorable little one?
The US is the only OECD country without national statutory paid maternity, paternity or parental leave.
So parental leave in America really is exceptional—exceptionally bad that is.
I know what you're thinking… What about FMLA?
The Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA) ensures that employers with 50 or more workers must allow parents 12 weeks of job-protected leave per year to care for a newborn.
The problem is, in most cases the leave is unpaid.
And too many are left out. According to the 2018 FMLA surveys:
Just 56 percent of employees were eligible for FMLA, based on employment tenure, hours worked, and size of workplace.
Why is Maternity Leave a Big Deal?
- Maternity leave increases vaccination rates and well-baby care doctor visits.
- Paid parental leave has been found to decrease the infant mortality rate by as much as 10 percent.
- The health of baby and mother are improved: breastfeeding supports a newborn's immune system, and longer maternity is associated with lower depression for new moms
For these reasons, the tides are shifting.
In recent years 30 states have enacted bills related to family and medical leave. They fall into three main categories:
- Family Medical Leave
- Pregnancy-only leave statutes
- COVID-19 specific statutes enacted in response to the pandemic
If you're planning to have a child, you might want to consider moving to one of the following states (plus D.C.) with Family Medical Leave, if you don't live there already:
- Colorado (not yet in effect)
- New Jersey
- New York
- Oregon (not yet in effect)
- Rhode Island
*Hawaii supplies paid medical leave in the form of temporary disability insurance.
There are also some standout companies in various states which offer paid parental leave, so do your research if you'd like this benefit.
Another sign of a positive change: President Biden has introduced an unprecedented proposal, to help families called the American Families Plan. It would cost about $225bn and provide 12 weeks of paid parental, family, and sick leave to practically all American workers.
"No one should have to choose between a job and paycheck or taking care of themselves and their loved ones—a parent, a spouse, or child,"
Out of our respondents, 244 reported giving birth while employed, and 286 reported that their partner had given birth while employed.
And there was a nearly even split in the gender of our parents.
- Males: 49%
- Females: 51%
We asked our moms and dads how much time they were able to take off after the birth of their child.
The results were disturbing.
Of the dads:
- 28% took 2 weeks or less
- 20% took 3-4 weeks
- 20% took 5-6 weeks
- 15% took none
- 8% took 7-8 weeks
Of the moms:
- 27% took 5-6 weeks
- 20% took 3-4 weeks
- 18% took 11-12 weeks
- 8% took 3 months
- 7% took 2 weeks or less
- 3% took none
- 2% more than a year
- 2% didn't return to their job
The amount of time off they were able to take was miniscule as compared with most developed nations.
Taking the Pulse of our Moms & Dads About Their Parental Leave
The mothers and fathers in our study were able to take varying amounts of leave after the birth of their child. But did they think it's enough?
We asked them if they agreed or disagreed that the time they were allowed for parental leave was sufficient for taking care of their newborn. Here's what they said:
- 42% agreed
- 24% strongly agreed
- 18% were neutral
- 12% disagreed
- 5% strongly disagreed
Simply put, 66% felt that the time they had off from work to care for their newborn was adequate. And 17% did not feel it was adequate.
Considering the time off they were able to take, the level of satisfaction was surprising.
A shocking 32% of moms said they couldn't take as much time as they wanted because they just didn't have enough vacation and/or sick days, and they needed the money. And 19% were afraid of losing their job.
Some moms actually felt guilty for leaving their boss and/or colleagues with extra work. 7% said they didn't take all the days available to them, selecting: "I didn't want to let my boss and/or team down."
Here's how they put it, in their own words:
"My office is normally understaffed and I feel guilty taking any unscheduled time off."
"Didn't want to be seen as taking advantage due to the pregnancy."
"I didn't want people to think I couldn't handle the work and the pregnancy."
This is in line with a study which shows that moms who do take maternity leave can be viewed as prioritizing family over work, and those who don't take maternity leave will be viewed as prioritizing work over family.
They are suffering from the classic "damned if you do, damned if you don't" scenario.
And that's not the only sad and striking truth we uncovered:
59% of the moms in our study avoided calling in sick when feeling ill during pregnancy.
We also gave these moms the opportunity to tell us why they avoided calling in sick when they had difficult pregnancy symptoms.
They responded candidly:
"Needed the money."
"Because you can lose your job if you call in sick too often."
"To save the paid days off for my maternity leave since it was unpaid."
"Wanted to save my sick days."
"I had terrible morning sickness for months but I still went to work and just pushed through it."
"6 weeks was all that I was allowed for paid time and I needed the money so I went back to work."
"We are not eligible for FMLA because we have less than 50 employees."
"It wasn't available when my child was born."
Speaking of sick time…
Aaaaa-chooo! Not Blessed With U.S. Sick Leave
We've all come to know the phrase "superspreader."
But, a superspreader can be a person infecting others with any number of contagious viruses, not just COVID-19.
Since more than 32 million people working in the private sector have no access to paid sick days, many have to "suck it up" and go to work regardless.
They're faced with the unfortunate choice of working sick or not getting paid.
We wanted to know if our respondents got an adequate amount of sick days, so we asked them about this.
Little White Lies
We've all been there. A beautiful, sunny day is calling to you. The idea of working on such a lovely day just feels WRONG.
You let your boss know you're "not feeling well." Most people can milk it for up to three days off without needing a doctor's note.
Let's call it a vacation booster shot.
We wanted to know if our respondents ever fibbed and called in sick when they felt just peachy.
Not surprisingly, the two industries in our study who reported never calling in sick when they weren't were Retail, Wholesale and Distribution, and Education. As can be seen above, these respondents didn't have much paid sick time, so calling in sick without any real symptoms is a luxury they can't afford.
- 50% of those in Education reported never calling in sick when they weren't.
- 50% of those in Retail, Wholesale and Distribution, and Education reported never calling in sick when they weren't.
Those in Manufacturing called in sick the most despite being well. It's a pity we feel we have to feign a cough like Ferris Bueller to get out of work.
- 29% of those in Manufacturing called in sick when they weren't 5-10 times per year.
Who can blame them? The U.S. lags far behind all other developed nations when it comes to sick leave.
According to The World, a public radio program:
At least 20 million Americans go to work sick because they do not have any paid sick leave.
During the 2009 H1N1 flu outbreak, the CDC advised anyone with flu-like symptoms to stay home. According to the Institute for Women's Policy Research, over eight million workers went to their jobs while sick during the H1N1 pandemic.
This factor could very well have worsened the impact of the current pandemic.
So, how were our respondents feeling regarding their available sick time?
A Temperature Check On Sick Time
We wanted to know if our survey participants were satisfied with their sick time, so we asked if they agreed or disagreed with the following statement:
"I am satisfied with the amount of sick leave I am allowed to take."
- 33% agreed
- 25% were neutral
- 23% strongly agreed
- 10% strongly disagreed
- 9% disagreed
Of course, we are less sick when we have ample time to rest our bodies and minds. And, what's better for our mental health and wellness than a nice, relaxing vacation?
Two Weeks Off Straight? Really?
Picture this conversation.
Me: I'd like to take two weeks off to go to Europe for my vacation.
My boss: Two weeks off straight? Really?
My boss: That's all of your vacation time. You sure you want to do that?
Me: Yes, because it's a long flight and there's the time difference, plus I'd like to travel around and see different places.
My boss: Okay, but we don't normally take off that many days consecutively. I'll approve it, but it's a bit unusual.
Me: I understand, thank you sooo much!
That was a previous job and I did go on that European vacation. Taking two weeks off made me realize that you really only start to relax after a week has passed.
And, speaking of Europe…
- A Polish friend said twenty-six days off is a normal number of days of paid vacation time.
- My English friend gets twenty-eight days per year.
It's rare for Americans to take two weeks off in a row. But, we wanted to find out from our survey-takers if they had done so, and how often.
We asked them how many times in their lives they'd taken two weeks straight of vacation. Here's what they told us.
The most striking results:
- 26% had never taken two weeks vacation straight.
- A whopping 49% of those working in Retail, Wholesale and Distribution reported never taking two weeks off straight.
- 29% of women had never taken two weeks in a row, compared to 22% of men.
Interestingly, a huge difference existed between regions for those who hadn't taken two weeks off consecutively. Here's the percentage of respondents in each region who've never had two straight weeks of vacation:
Maybe it is the Wild, Wild West after all.
Two Hands' Worth
The average number of PTO for those working in the private sector for at least a year is 10 days, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. We wanted to find out if our respondents had the same.
From our study:
- 23%—had 11–15 days
- 22%—had only 10 days of vacation
- 18%—just 6–9 days
- 15%—1–5 days
- 13%—20+ days
- 10%—16–12 days
How does this compare with the rest of the world?
Vacation Time—Testing the Waters
We wanted to know if our respondents felt satisfied with their vacation time.
It was mind-boggling that 67% of our respondents agreed that their allotted vacation days were adequate.
Gender played a role in satisfaction level with vacation time.
- 18% of females didn't feel they had enough vacation time.
- But just 9% of males felt the same.
(And there was very little statistical difference between the number of days off men and women had available to them. Most had between 10-15 days off.)
Will our survey takers' satisfaction levels with parental, sick, and vacation time change after learning some facts about leave in other countries?
Let's find out!
Policy Awareness Pop Quiz
At the end of the survey, we dedicated a short section to determining the awareness level of our survey takers of the U.S. and other countries' policies.
We asked our survey participants a series of four "Did you know?" questions. Here are the results:
"Did you know that the average amount of parental leave in Europe is twenty-six weeks?"
Surprisingly, women were less aware. Just 37% of women said they knew about this, whereas 42% of men knew.
"Did you know that there is no federal minimum for paid vacation or paid public holidays in the U.S.?"
"Did you know that most countries in Europe give their employees 20 or more paid vacation days?"
Those who were 24 or younger were the least aware of this. 71% didn't know.
But only 47% of Millennials weren't aware.
"Did you know that the U.S., Suriname, Papua New Guinea, and a handful of island nations in the Pacific Ocean are the only countries that don't require employers to provide paid time off for new mothers?"
From the "Did you know?" questions, it was clear that many were unaware of the leave information we had provided.
We asked them to tell us what they thought of the U.S. leave policies and if anything in the information surprised them.
The following comments encapsulate the overriding theme of the hundreds we received.
Something needs to change.
We're a leading nation in so many areas, but America is light years behind other nations in the area of paid leave. Not only is paid leave lacking, but the awareness of how it is in other countries is lacking too.
As one respondent bluntly said, "It's not enough; people are literally living to work and die."
We're burning the candle at both ends. It's gotten so bad that burnout was recently classified by the WHO as an actual syndrome.
Here's how employers can make a difference:
- Ease the burden for your employees by instituting Family Leave.
- Raise the bar on the number of vacation days and sick days available to workers.
Adding maternity and paternity leave, offering financial incentives, child care support, and a flexible work schedule would all go a long way to ensuring Americans are no longer left out.
We surveyed 950+ respondents online via a bespoke polling tool on their vacation, sick, and parental leave. All respondents included in the study passed an attention-check question. The study was created through several steps of research, crowdsourcing, and surveying.
The data we are presenting relies on self-reports from respondents. Each person who took our survey read and responded to each question without any research administration or interference. There are many potential issues with self-reported data like selective memory, telescoping, attribution, or exaggeration.
Some questions and responses have been rephrased or condensed for clarity and ease of understanding for readers. In some cases, the percentages presented may not add up to 100 percent; depending on the case, this can be due to rounding, or due to being part of a larger statistic, or due to responses of "neither/uncertain/unknown" not being presented.
Fair Use Statement
Don't miss the chance to share these findings—–you might regret it! If you think your audience will be interested in this information, you can share it for noncommercial reuse. All we ask in return is that you link back to this page so that your readers can view the full study.
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