The United States is one of only five countries that does not provide or require employers to provide some form of paid maternity leave, placing it behind a majority of the world when it comes to instituting family-oriented job policies, according to a new study.

In a study from McGill University's Institute for Health and Social Policy , the United States, Lesotho, Liberia, Swaziland, and Papua New Guinea were the only countries out of 173 studied that didn't guarantee any paid leave for mothers. Among the 168 countries that do, 98 offer 14 or more weeks of paid leave.

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Overall, the study's other major findings indicate that workplace policies in the United States for families — such as paid sick days and support for breast-feeding — are weaker than those in all high-income countries as well as many middle and low-income countries.

"More countries are providing the workplace protections that millions of Americans can only dream of," Jody Heymann, director of McGill's Institute for Health and Social Policy, who led study, said in a statement.

At least 145 countries provide paid sick days for short- and long-term illnesses, with 127 countries providing for a week or more every year, the study found. In addition, 137 countries require its employers to provide paid annual leave, whereas the Unites States does not guarantee any sort of paid leave.

Under the Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993 , U.S. workers are allowed to take up to 12 weeks leave for to tend to family or medical needs, but their absence is unpaid.

States are beginning to take more of an initiative on this front, human-resources experts say. For example, California has passed legislation for paid family leave — called the State Disability Insurance Program , which entitles employees a maximum of six weeks of partial pay per year to care for a newborn or other family matters.

While U.S. companies are moving in the way of providing more family-friendly workplace policies, many currently provide alternative forms of payment through their short-term disability programs. For example, having a baby can be considered a qualifying condition for getting paid disability leave.

The release of the study was appropriately timed with discussions in Washington over whether to consider new legislation that would enforce paid leaves. On Feb. 1, Sen. Chris Dodd, D-Conn., who authored the Family and Medical Leave Act, proposed new legislation that would expand the act by providing at least six weeks of paid leave for workers.

"Besides our nation's families, our nation's economy, its production, and its competitiveness are threatened when families are forced to choose between the job they need and the family they love," Dodd said in a statement announcing the legislation. "FMLA was a milestone in our nation's dialogue, acknowledging that families, workforce production and competitiveness are not mutually exclusive."

The United States also lags behind in protecting working women's right to breastfeed. At least 107 countries grant women the right to breastfeed, and in 73 of those countries, the breaks are paid, the study found. The United States does not have any protections in place for women who want to breastfeed.

The only area where U.S. job policies were more favorable compared to other countries was in regard to guaranteeing higher pay for overtime work and non-discriminatory hiring policies, researchers found.

"The U.S. has been a proud leader in adopting law that provide for equal opportunity in the workplace, but our work/family protections are among the worst," Heymann said. "It's time for a change."

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