This Year May Be a Tipping Point for Paid Parental Leave
Twenty-three years ago today, newly elected President Bill Clinton signed the Family Medical Leave Act into law. Since 1993, the law has provided full-time American workers with 12 weeks of unpaid leave to care for family members or an unborn child. That’s a powerful thing. But now, there seems to be growing support for more substantial paid family leave.
Since the FMLA first passed, we’ve come a long way. Some major companies have expanded to providing paid maternity leave or paid parental leave beyond the unpaid weeks required by the federal government.
That’s especially true in Silicon Valley, where companies have long touted their expansive leave benefits policies. 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. And last year, companies like Netflix, Adobe, and Microsoft expanded their leave policies as a way of attracting (and retaining) top talent.
But according to the Department of Labor, only 12 percent of US private companies offer workers some kind of paid leave. That’s a significant problem for the many who can’t afford to take unpaid time off or may feel pressure not to do so. In fact, the United States lags behind much of the rest of the world when it comes to these kind of paid family benefits.
And yet pressure is mounting for more employers, as well as state governments, to support paid leave, which helps new mothers and fathers bond with their children, or allows working adults to take care of elderly parents, without the worry about being able to pay the bills. This could prove to be the year where the progress that was started more than 23 years ago pushes significantly forward. “There’s a lot of momentum,” says Ellen Bravo, a longtime family leave activist and the executive director of the Family Values @ Work.
Silicon Valley and Beyond
The issue, however, is a complicated one. Large high profile companies can afford to offer the benefits as a way to attract top talent. But small businesses already strapped for cash aren’t always able to provide the same kind of perks. A recent story in Digiday featured parents at ad agencies bemoaning the lack of fair and equal paid parental leave plans in parts of the ad world. In December, business groups in Washington, D.C. criticized a proposed districtwide paid family leave bill, arguing it would be too costly.
Support for paid parental leave benefits, however, seems to be expanding beyond the scope of private companies into the public interest sector. Last week, 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, up to 12, than they were previously allotted. And, earlier this year, President Barack Obama granted all federal workers six weeks of paid parental leave. (He also mentioned the benefit in his State of the Union address last year.)
While three states have already adopted paid family leave legislation, Bravo says, 18 states are currently in the process of reviewing their own laws. Meanwhile, it has become a hot issue on the campaign trail; both Democratic candidates Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders support the idea of guaranteeing 12 weeks of paid leave, but they disagree on how such a program would be paid for. (Republican candidates do not support a federal program directly providing paid family and medical leave benefits. Candidate Marco Rubio, however, has proposed the government give companies tax credits if they offer paid leave.)
Pressure on companies and the government to provide paid family benefits seems to only be growing, but Bravo says the success of programs in Silicon Valley shows that, not only is it the right thing to do, but it can be good for business—a sentiment that YouTube’s CEO Susan Wojcicki has shared as well. That kind of high profile success (and draw for talent) may encourage other companies to do the same even outside the tech sector. Late last year, Credit Suisse expanded its paid leave to 20 weeks and consulting firm Accenture announced that, in addition to its leave plan, the primary caregiver can stay closer to home during the first year of their child’s life.
And yet companies using paid parental leave benefits to attract talent in finance and tech doesn’t mean those benefits will necessarily reach every sector, or even every type of worker. “I see no indications at all that companies are trying to change the policies for hourly workers,” says Joan Williams, a professor at UC Hastings Law and director of the Center for WorkLife Law.
A Culture Shift
Meanwhile, the culture around parental leave has also changed, which Bravo attributes, in part, to millennials who see men and women sharing more of the same demands at home. 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.
“The good news is that young men now care about these policies, and that’s a really big shift,” Williams says. “That’s why we see the movement at the corporate level.”
In fact, some Silicon Valley companies emphasize that they don’t even offer “maternity” leave, but rather parental leave for all. Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s high profile chief executive, took two months off after the birth of his daughter Max. (Facebook, we should note, didn’t implode without him.)
That kind of shift is an important one culturally for the company and the country. It garnered headlines from major news organizations (including WIRED). If paid parental leave continues to find momentum, one day, a male CEO taking time off to be with his newborn may not be noteworthy at all.
Link to article –