Employers Playing Catch-Up With Demands for Parenting Leave

By Kristen Ricaurte Knebel

Aug. 4 — American workers are clamoring for more paid family leave and employers, lawmakers and presidential candidates are heeding the call.

“The hottest thing out there is the area of parental leave. Organizations are very, very rapidly looking at creating it as a retention tool or an attraction tool, or increasing it,” Jackie Reinberg, national practice leader, absence, disability and life at Willis Towers Watson in Philadelphia, told Bloomberg BNA on Aug. 1.

Netflix, Microsoft and Facebook have been making headlines for their parental leave policies, but other employers are playing catch up with these big names when it comes to their leave packages. According to the Society for Human Resource Management's 2016 Employee Benefits Survey, 26 percent of employers provided paid maternity leave, 21 percent of employers provided paid paternity leave and 20 percent provided paid adoption leave.

The number of employers offering this benefit continues to grow, but there is “still a long ways to go,” Lisa Horn, director of Congressional affairs at SHRM, told Bloomberg BNA Aug. 2.

“The reality is a lot of our workforce is still stuck in the past,” Julie Kashen, policy director at Make It Work Campaign, an organization advocating for workplace policies for working families, including paid family leave, told Bloomberg BNA Aug. 1.

Women who are primary caregivers make up “roughly half” of all workers, she said, “and so the reality is that workplaces have not caught up to where things are in today’s world. But it’s changing.”

The Trouble With Numbers

The number of employers offering some form of paid family leave is on the rise, but it can be difficult to get a handle on just how many actually offer this benefit. The numbers differ from survey to survey depending on what parameters are used to define paid parental leave policies.

“There is clearly a trend towards paid family leave, but the way that you define it is important,” Reinberg said.

Horn echoed that sentiment, saying a human resources employee responding to a survey about paid parental leave may not take into account other forms of leave that can also go toward maternity, paternity, parental or other types of paid leave that are used to care for a new child.

The movement toward providing more robust family leave has extended into the presidential campaign, with Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton proposing 12 weeks of paid family and medical leave to care for a new child or seriously ill family member. Republican nominee Donald Trump has yet to offer any sort of proposal on paid leave.

Currently, the Family and Medical Leave Act provides eligible employees of covered employers with 12 weeks of unpaid, job-protected leave in a 12-month period, for specified family and medical reasons, but employees are looking for more.

Benefits of Paid Leave

When employers provide paid family leave to care for a new child, the results in the workplace are positive, Pam Jeffords, a partner with Mercer, told Bloomberg BNA Aug. 1.

“We’re starting to see the implications that taking that leave has on future performance,” she said.

Jeffords said women can concentrate on settling back into their careers if their spouse or partner's employer has a leave policy that allows them to stay home with a child after the mother returns to work.

“What we believe is, when the father takes the time off, the woman realizes that it doesn’t always have to be her” caring for the child, she said.

Cost of Leave

Many employers indicate that they'd like to offer this benefit, but there is a cost to providing paid leave.

“I think almost all employers are looking at this and saying this a benefit we would like to have, but there is a price tag to it,” Reinberg said.

A handful of states and localities have initiated paid leave policies. Most recently, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) signed a law that will require employers to provide 12 weeks of paid family leave for their employees.

California not only has a state paid family leave law, but several cities including San Francisco have leave policies as well, which be tricky waters for employers to navigate, Horn said.

Even a federal one-size-fits-all paid leave policy would be problematic for some employers, Horn said.

“A better approach for public policy would be to incentivize or encourage more employers to voluntarily offer a leave package,” she said. This could include “easing the regulatory structure” or providing tax incentives to employers who adopt paid parental leave policies or beef up their current offerings, she said.

Either way, the conversation about paid leave and workplace flexibility will only continue to grow.

“Flexibility is something that a growing majority of employees are asking for and so we’re seeing employers respond,” Horn said.

To contact the reporter on this story: Kristen Ricaurte Knebel in Washington at kknebel@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Jo-el J. Meyer at jmeyer@bna.com

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