A report released by Human Rights Watch on Feb 23, 2011 titled Failing Its Families offers a critique of the historical and current support provided in the United States for family-leave programs. The US is cited as one of just three countries worldwide offering no legal guarantee of paid maternity leave for working families. The question of a legal guarantee for paid paternity leave, or paid guardian leave was not raised in the report. The 1993 Family Medical Leave Act does provide for up to 12 weeks of job protected unpaid leave for men and women, yet covers only about half of the workforce.
There is of course also no guaranteed support provided for non-working families in the US, unless the mother is living at such a level of poverty that she and her baby qualify for a government aid program. Yet in these cases poverty is the reason the aid is provided – it is not in general provided as recognition of the fact that a new member has joined society and we all want to make sure that she/he gets off to a good start.
Why should this be of concern to us? Well speaking for myself, whether the babies being born are mine or someone else’s, and whether I myself have children or not, by choice or otherwise, these new babies are joining the society in which I live. Their ability to be healthy, happy and enjoyable friends, neighbors, teachers, police officers, construction workers, nurses or leaders will be significantly affected by the quality of life they experience during the first two years of their existence.
And the ability of their parents/caregivers to be happy, healthy and productive as both parents/caregivers and workers is significantly affected by the support they receive during the first two years after the birth or adoption of a baby. If we want a vibrant economy, to improve people’s health, reduce poverty, and insure that future workers are well prepared to learn and contribute, it seems to me only reasonable that we would all be looking for ways to insure that newborns and their caregivers are well cared for themselves.
How does all of this relate to great workplaces? Good question. It turns out that leaders among the 100 Best Companies in the United States understand the importance of insuring that parents and new family members get off to a good start. Every 100 Best Company insures that some form of paid maternity leave is available to employees – at a minimum through the company’s short-term disability program. While many of us bristle at the idea that pregnancy and birth are disabilities, in some states and for the US as a whole disability insurance programs are the most common ways in which people secure some type of support during the birth or adoption of a child.
And the Best Companies don’t stop there. Seventy-three of the 100 Best offer support for fertility treatments through their health insurance programs. Ninety-two offer lactation rooms to encourage breast-feeding, one of the greatest natural sources of health care protection available to any newborn. On-site childcare, off site subsidized childcare and back up childcare are offered by about 1/3 of the companies, and resource and referral networks are available to answer questions and provide information on resources available outside of the company. Forty-four of the 100 Best explicitly offer paternity leave programs that go beyond paid time off available to any employee. Most of these programs are also available to domestic partners, same-sex or opposite sex, and extensive benefits are available for people who adopt babies or older children. And this list of support resources doesn’t include the multitude of special offerings that include things such as meals sent home, gifts for the newborns, monthly wellness seminars, lactation consultants, and flexible scheduling options.
Why do the Best Companies provide all of this support? They care about their employees as people first, and recognize the significance of adding a new baby or child to a family. They want employees to be happy, healthy and loyal so go to great lengths to insure that people feel supported while away from the workplace. They also want people to know how important they are to the success of the company so that they will return. Best Companies do experience lower turnover than their peers in the same industry and over time have consistently shown themselves to be better financial performers. Perhaps there’s a correlation here?
All is not lost outside of the Best Companies, with a number of bright spots appearing in the US with respect to state government support for parental leave. California has an excellent Paid Family Leave (PFL) program that is structured as an insurance benefit, like SDI, and is funded by a 1.2% tax on payroll. This program was established in 2002, fully funded and effective in 2004, and despite significant criticism that the law would harm small businesses because of the tax burden, the vast majority of employers report minimal negative impact on their business operations. In fact, the responses have been notably positive: Most employers report that PFL had either a “positive effect” or “no noticeable effect” on productivity (89 percent), profitability/performance (91 percent), turnover (96 percent), and employee morale (99 percent)*. And ninety one percent of respondents in a recent survey about the program indicated that they were not aware of any instances in which employees abused the program.
In 2009, New Jersey implemented a Family Leave Insurance program modeled after the one in California, using the state’s temporary disability insurance (TDI) program as a support platform. A few other states have TDI programs and Washington State passed a family leave law in 2007 without the support of TDI. All of these programs seek to provide some level of wage replacement for parents (birth mothers, fathers, partners, adoptive parents) so that they can take care of the newborn or adopted child, and take care of themselves as well during this critical time.
Around the world one of the best examples of a gender neutral parental leave policy can be found in Sweden. Initially paid parental leave was provided to couples to allocate between the parents as they wished, yet forward-thinking Swedish leaders, wanting to encourage more men to bond with and be involved in the care of their newborns, added a number of ‘use it or lose it’ days to the leave program. These days are made available to the family only if they are used by the father. After this legislation was passed the number of days father’s took to bond with and care for their children increased dramatically.
Parental leave is clearly not a policy that everyone needs to take advantage of, yet we will all take ‘advantage’ of the little ones who join our society as they grow up, consume resources, create, contribute and give back to the next group of babies that comes along. We really do need to think of the long term when considering our support for parental leave programs, wherever we live. Everyone benefits when babies are given the best chance to grow up happy, healthy and well cared for.
Amy Lyman is cofounder of Great Place to Work™ and author of The Trustworthy Leader.