Paid family leave: A U.S. culture shift?

The Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) was enacted in 1993 to provide eligible workers 12 weeks of unpaid leave to care for family members or a newborn child. Now, there is growing support for more substantial paid family leave. Some major companies have started providing paid maternity leave or paid parental leave beyond the unpaid weeks required under the FMLA.

Who’s Offering Paid Parental Leave?

Most large, high-profile companies can afford to offer rich benefits as a way to attract talent; however, small businesses aren’t always able to provide the same kind of benefits. For example, Facebook offers new moms and dads four paid months off.

Google offers birth-moms 18 paid weeks off, while new dads and adoptive parents get 12 weeks off. Other companies, such as Adobe and Microsoft, expanded their leave policies as a way of attracting and retaining top talent. The California-based tech company Netflix made news last year when it announced it would give its salaried employees up to 12 months of paid parental leave to take at their own discretion.

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In addition, support for paid family leave or paid parental leave benefits seems to be expanding beyond the scope of private companies. In February 2016, Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter announced that women in the military would be eligible to get double the number of paid weeks of maternity leave, for a total of 12 weeks.

According to SHRM’s 2015 Employee Benefits: An Overview of Employee Benefits Offerings in the U.S. survey, 21% of organizations offered paid maternity leave (other than what is covered by short-term disability or state law) and 17% offered paid paternity leave. And the Department of Labor (DOL) announced that only 12% of U.S. private sector workers have access to paid family leave through their employers.

In fact, the U.S. is the only industrial country that does not mandate paid time off. However, 2015 was the year that U.S. companies saw (and experienced) the growing trend of mandatory paid sick leave laws. Today, at least four states and 20 cities have a mandatory paid sick leave ordinance.

Government Addresses Paid Leave

Last year, President Obama signed an executive order requiring that federal contractors and their subcontractors provide paid sick leave to their employees beginning in 2017. Earlier this year, he granted all federal workers six weeks of paid parental leave. According to the Obama Administration,

… too many Americans cannot share in the nation’s prosperity because they lack the basic supports they need to balance the demands of work and family. Strong paid family and medical leave policies can help working families take time off for caregiving responsibilities, as well as their own medical needs, without putting their economic security at risk.

While California, New Jersey and Rhode Island have adopted paid family leave benefit programs which are funded by employees, many other states are currently reviewing their laws. New York recently passed what has been deemed the “nation’s strongest paid family leave program.” When fully phased in, New York employees will be eligible for 12 weeks of paid leave to care for a family member or to relieve family pressures when someone is called to active military duty. Last month, San Francisco became the first city to pass a paid parental leave ordinance, effective January 2017. The ordinance bases eligibility on whether the employee works in San Francisco, not on whether the employee lives in San Francisco.

While maternity leave may be more common than paternity leave, research has shown that paternity leave can have benefits for a child, a father and women in the workplace and at home.

Implementing a Leave Program

Before considering implementing a maternity or paternity leave program at your organization, it is important to take note of the EEOC’s 2014 guidance on parental leave programs:

  • Companies that offer mothers “time for care and bonding” must also offer “time for care” to fathers.
  • Carefully distinguish between leave related to any physical limitations imposed by pregnancy or childbirth and leave for purposes of bonding with a child and/or providing care for a child.
  • Leave related to pregnancy, childbirth or related medical conditions can be limited to women affected by those conditions.
  • Parental leave must be provided to similarly situated men and women on the same terms.
    • For example, if an employer extends leave to new mothers beyond the period of recuperation from childbirth (e.g., to provide the mothers time to bond with and/or care for the baby), it cannot lawfully fail to provide an equivalent amount of leave to new fathers for the same purpose.

It is apparent that the culture around parental leave has also changed, in part, due to millennials who see men and women sharing more of the same demands at home. That kind of shift is an important one culturally for companies — and not just large companies in the high-tech industry but also those in financial services, manufacturing, professional services, etc. —  and for the country. Providing paid family leave and flexibility could be a selling point in the near future for employees entering the workforce.

About Marina Galatro

Marina A. Galatro, PHRca, SHRM-CP, is a Senior Human Resources Consultant and HR Partner at Willis Towers Watson's…
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