UCare generously supports MinnPost’s Second Opinion coverage; learn why.

John Oliver takes U.S. — and Minnesota — to task for refusing to mandate paid maternity leave

As John Oliver pointed out with biting and brilliant humor on his HBO show “Last Week Tonight” this past Sunday, it’s both astonishing and shameful that the United States is the only major country in the world that doesn’t mandate paid maternity leave for its working women.

In fact, Canada and most of Europe and Central Asia provide a minimum of 26 weeks of paid leave for new mothers.

The United States does have laws that guarantee unpaid maternity leave, but even those laws apply to only about 40 percent of women in the U.S. work force. Furthermore, many, many women, particularly those toiling in low-wage jobs, cannot afford to take much unpaid leave.

Oliver singled out some Minnesota lawmakers — in particular, Republican Sens. Dan Hall, Paul Gazelka, Roger Chamberlain and Brandon Petersen — for posting effusive Mother’s Day video messages despite voting last year against the Women’s Economic Security Act, which expanded unpaid maternity leave from six to 12 weeks as well as other workplace protections for women.

“You can’t have it both ways,” Oliver said. “You can’t go on and on about how much you love mothers, and then fail to support legislation that makes life easier for them.”

Health consequences

Oliver’s piece focuses on the economic and physical burdens that new mothers endure in the U.S. because of the country’s regressive approach to maternal leave. But this is not only an economic issue. Maternal leave (and that includes leave prior to delivery, too) is also an important public health issue. 

Here are a just a few reasons why:

  • Pregnant women who take no leave before their baby’s birth are nearly four times more likely to deliver by cesarean section than women who take pre-natal leave. They are also more likely to give birth prematurely and to deliver babies who are small for their gestational age.
  • Women need time to recover from pregnancy and childbirth — even if they aren’t among the 50,000 U.S. women each year who experience serious health complications during pregnancy. (In fact, one in five pregnant women in the U.S. are advised to spend a minimum of one week on bed rest or to severely restrict their activities in other ways during the course of their pregnancy.) Studies have found, not surprisingly, that new mothers who take more than 12 weeks of leave have less fatigue and anxiety — and much more energy.
  • Research also suggests that extended maternal leave reduces the risk of postpartum depression. A 2013 study that followed 800 new Minnesota mothers reported that at six weeks, 12 weeks or six months after delivering their child, the mothers who hadn’t returned to work were significantly less likely to be experiencing symptoms of depression.
  • Going back to work too soon is a significant barrier for breastfeeding. Although the Affordable Care Act has introduced policies that (on paper, at least) make pumping and storing breast milk at work easier, only about half of U.S. babies are being fed breast milk at six months — the minimum length of time recommended by health officials to ensure the best health possible for the baby. Research has found that mothers who take less than six weeks of maternity leave are four times more likely to stop breastfeeding after returning to work than those mothers who did not return to work.

You can watch John Oliver’s segment on U.S. maternal leave (or, rather, the lack of it) above. His discussion about Minnesota’s lawmakers begins  at the 8:55-minute mark.

You can also learn about all our free newsletter options.

Comments (11)

  1. Submitted by lee wick on 05/12/2015 - 11:26 am.

    Major countries.

    Am I the only annoyed by pontificators always comparing something USA with other countries? Our country is the largest land mass with a large diversified population. What works in Norway or Great Britain isn’t necessarily right for the USA and in fact each state is different. One thing that is totally missing these days is our savings rate for expected and unexpected expenses.

    Why didn’t Oliver include in his bit the fact that those other countries are having budget problems with all the socialization they have done and some like Germany, Britain, and Norway have recently acknowledged the welfare benefits are becoming unsustainable.

    • Submitted by Dennis Tester on 05/12/2015 - 02:28 pm.

      See the recent election

      in England. Some Brits are starting to get it.

    • Submitted by Peter Stark on 05/12/2015 - 03:56 pm.


      What does the size of the county have to do with anything? Canada, China, and Russia are all larger by land mass. What is the theoretical connection between land-mass and maternity leave policies not working? What is the theoretical connection between “diversified population” and maternity leave policies not working? California has a very large land mass and a very diverse population, and they implemented paid maternity leave with a payroll tax. We don’t have a problem administering a payroll deduction system for Social Security or Medicare/Medicaid, so why would a maternity leave system be any different?

      I suspect Oliver didn’t mention this because it doesn’t make any more sense to talk about the land mass of the USA than it does to talk about the many species of deer on the Eurasian steppe when discussing US maternity leave policy.

      Since you asked, I’ll check in on the costs of administering maternity leave in countries around the world. I assure you, they are not expensive enough to cause budget crises all on their own.

      • Submitted by Peter Stark on 05/12/2015 - 09:12 pm.


        In the UK, in 2011-12, total spending on Maternity Allowance + Statutory Sick Leave & Maternity Leave was 2.92bn Euros. Out of a total Benefits expenditure budget of 160bn Euro, or 1.82%. Out of the entire budget for the UK of 695bn Euro, Maternity policies equal 0.42% of the budget.

        Assuming Minnesota adopted a similar policy, and it scaled 1-1 with population, keeping costs the same, it would cost taxpayers $280 million, or 0.7% of the budget. Easily doable, and with minor effort.


  2. Submitted by Connie Sullivan on 05/12/2015 - 11:48 am.

    The hypocrisy of too many of our politicians is amazing.

  3. Submitted by Ann Spencer on 05/12/2015 - 01:10 pm.

    This is also an economic issue

    Economic vitality depends on replenishing the workforce, and so does the sustainability of necessary government functions. We create an economy where two incomes are needed, leave each family to wrestle with parenting issues alone and unsupported in the name of “freedom”, and then wring our hands about falling birth rates. When will we connect the dots?

  4. Submitted by Dee Ann Christensen on 05/12/2015 - 01:11 pm.

    Total Agreement

    I just sent an email to my senator, Brandon Peterson, about this hypocrisy. Would it perhaps raise their awareness if men had to endure a pregnancy or two…or three?


    • Submitted by jason myron on 05/12/2015 - 04:36 pm.

      If men could become pregnant,

      there would be clinics performing abortions on every block, equipped with big screen TVs tuned to ESPN and scantily clad women serving up wings and beer in recovery.

  5. Submitted by Kassie Church on 05/12/2015 - 01:16 pm.

    State Worker Parental Leave

    If you care about this, please write the governor demanding he give State Employees paid parental leave. He is currently negotiating contracts with the unions and paid parental leave is on the table. The State represents the largest employer in Minnesota and adding this to our benefits would be a big step for this in Minnesota.

Leave a Reply