New Family Leave Policies: Not All Created Equal

By Rhonda Smith

Family leave policies unveiled in 2015 by a number of employers in the technology and financial services sectors are bolstering the push by proponents of federal legislation that would require companies to extend this benefit to all U.S. workers.

Among the corporations that announced new or revised employer-paid family leave policies last year were Vodafone, Accenture, Johnson & Johnson, Nestle, Netflix, Microsoft, Adobe, Hilton Worldwide, M&T Bank, Amazon, Stonyfield Farm, Zillow, Spotify, Facebook, Credit Suisse Group, eBay and PayPal, according to research compiled by the Center for Law and Social Policy and the National Partnership for Women and Families. CLASP advocates for policies geared toward helping low-income workers.

“What’s vital is that all employees, not just those in a few lucky large corporations, be provided with this basic policy,” Jodie Levin-Epstein, deputy director of CLASP, told Bloomberg BNA Jan. 5. “That’s why public policy is essential. Otherwise, there will always be those employees who can’t meet this basic family need.”

The policies, which expand, sometimes vastly, the amount of paid maternal or paternal leave available to eligible employees, are not identical.

Vodafone Group Plc., a global telecommunications company, announced in March that it would begin providing employees with 16 weeks of paid maternity leave.

“By the end of 2015, women working at all levels across Vodafone’s 30 operating companies in Africa, the Middle East, the Asia-Pacific region, Europe and the US will be offered” this benefit, the company said in a statement at that time.

The policy also requires that female employees at Vodafone receive full pay for a 30-hour week during the first six months after they return to work following the birth of a child.

Amazon announced in November it would provide its employees with 20 weeks of paid maternity leave, including four weeks of paid leave before a child’s birth, and six weeks of paid paternity leave.

The leave is available for all full-time hourly and salaried employees, including customer service and fulfillment center workers, the company noted. It addition, Amazon said primary caregivers could work part-time for up to eight weeks after returning to work.

Push for a Federal Law

In most instances broader maternity and paternity leave benefits primarily are geared toward salaried employees, not hourly workers who have much lower wages, advocates for the latter group told Bloomberg BNA. As a result, they said, a federal law is needed to ensure that family leave benefits are available to all workers.

“The fact is, the ratcheting up in the quality of parental leave is part of a war for tech talent,” Joan Williams, distinguished professor of law and founding director of the Center for WorkLife Law at the University of California, Hastings, told Bloomberg BNA Jan. 6. “The way you’re going to get good paid parental leave policies for hourly workers is either through unions or through public policy.”

In March 2015, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) and Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.) reintroduced the Family and Medical Insurance Leave Act (S. 786, H.R. 1439), legislation that would create a federal leave insurance system based largely on programs already enacted in California, New Jersey and Rhode Island.

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 the proposed Family and Medical Insurance Leave Act would establish a national paid family and medical leave insurance program, funded by contributions from employers and employees.

It would allow workers to take up to 60 days of partially paid leave per year related to their own health conditions, pregnancy or childbirth, as well as that of a spouse, child or parent. It would be funded by a 0.2 percent wage contribution by covered workers and their employers, collected by the Social Security Administration.

Proponents of the measure said, however, that it’s unlikely to be approved in the Republican-controlled Congress.

SHRM, NFIB Oppose Legal Mandates

Opponents of the federal measure include the Society for Human Resource Management and the National Federation of Independent Business.

“We tend to oppose those one-size-fits-all state or federal leave mandates because they are so restrictive and try to suggest a very proscriptive leave package an employer must offer,” Lisa Horn, SHRM’s congressional affairs co-leader and director of the organization’s Workplace Flexibility Initiative, told Bloomberg BNA Jan. 7.

“We believe employers need the flexibility to offer the type of paid leave or flexible work arrangements that best suit the needs of their unique workforce,” she said.

Jack Mozloom, a spokesman for the National Federation of Independent Business, echoed Horn.

“Most of our members already provide some form of paid leave to their workers,” he said Jan. 7. “Mandates rob them of their flexibility.”

Access to Paid Parental Leave Limited

According to the Labor Department, 12 percent of U.S. private sector workers have access to paid family leave through their employer. Some employers provide short-term disability insurance for pregnant employees to use during maternity leave.

Large companies provided employer-paid family leave policies before 2015, but not to the extent they are doing so today, sources said.

“There have been high-road companies with policies like this for a long time,” Vicki Shabo, vice president of the National Partnership for Women and Families, told Bloomberg BNA Jan. 5. She cited as examples California-based clothing company Patagonia Inc., New York-based IBM and North Carolina-based SAS Institute Inc.

“But 2015 was fairly unprecedented in terms of the number and level of high-profile companies” that offered this benefit “and how high-profile the companies were,” she said.

A confluence of factors spurred companies to adopt or update their family leave policies in 2015. One factor was the Obama administration’s “active engagement of the business community and advocates” of such policies, Shabo said.

Competing for Talent

The ongoing competition among tech companies to hire experienced, talented workers was another key factor, Lenny Sanicola, a senior practice leader at WorldatWork, told Bloomberg BNA Jan. 6.

“A lot of these particular companies are finding things heating up, and this is a way to compete and attract and retain talent,” he said. “And a lot of millennials, the largest generation in the workforce, this is what they are looking for—flexibility in terms of paid time off and parental leave.”

The Scottsdale, Ariz.-based WorldatWork is a nonprofit human resources association for professionals and organizations that conducts research on compensation, benefits, work-life effectiveness and total rewards, which it describes as strategies to attract, motivate and retain an engaged and productive workforce.

Sanicola said some companies, such as Netflix, have been criticized for providing richer family leave benefits for their salaried employees than they did for their hourly employees. The company revised its policy in December.

“Out of all the companies I’ve read about, Hilton is most unique,” he said, because the company also provides a generous benefit for its nonexempt hourly workers.

Hilton Worldwide’s policy covers salaried and hourly employees, including part-time workers, as well as those who hold housekeeping and concierge roles, according to information compiled by the Center for Law and Social Policy and the National Partnership for Women & Families.

Creating an Effective Policy

Williams at the University of California’s Center for WorkLife Law recommends that employers take several key steps when creating or expanding their family leave policy.

  • Avoid “flexibility stigma.” This refers to supervisors or managers imposing workplace penalties or making derisive remarks when an employee requests a flexible work arrangement, she said. If a male employee requests parental leave and is asked, “Isn’t your wife in charge of that?” this could be a violation of the FMLA, related to interfering with familial leave. It also could be used as evidence of gender discrimination, she said, because it involves gender stereotyping.
  • Don’t use “lopsided leave policies.” The best approach is to figure out how much leave your company can afford and offer equal amounts of leave to women and men. “A leave policy that gives a significant amount of leave to a primary caregiver and a shorter amount of leave to other caregivers might make workers assume that the primary caregiver leave is for mothers only … even if that’s not the way the policy is formally set up.”
  • Implement standard family leave policies that cover everyone. “Otherwise, you have a series of secret side deals,” Williams said. “That presents a legal risk for employers because nobody quite knows what other people have. And different people might be told different things.”
  • Foster a culture in which women and men feel safe taking family leave. At Facebook, which announced its revised policy in November, if an employee announces a pregnancy in his or her family, the supervisors are being trained not to ask whether the worker will be taking leave, Williams said. Instead, they begin the transition by discussing how the leave will be handled. “This communicates the assumption on the part of the company that the employee will be taking the full leave,” she said.
  • Hold several off-ramping and on-ramping meetings. Meeting with employees before they take leave and when they return ensures a smooth transition for all involved. At off-ramp meetings, determine how workloads will be handled, she said. At on-ramping meetings, perhaps have in place a gradual return-to-work protocol to make sure the returning parent is not overwhelmed.