Can We Get a Re-Do on Government-Supported Parental Leave?

We are all human. We are born. We grow up. We go to school. We pick a career path. We simultaneously live life and go to work. We get our hearts broken. We find love again. We change jobs. We settle into a career. We marry. We have children. We retire. We move on.

For many of us, the ultimate dance we do as adults is the one between working life and personal life. This has been the way it it is for centuries and it is the way it will always be. This prompts me to wonder in 2018, the era of “work-life balance," flexible hours, teleworking and other workplace benefits, why employers still get maternity (parental) leave so wrong?

In 1993, the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) was passed, giving the option to employees to take up to 12 weeks of parental leave. The drawbacks were that the leave is unpaid and doesn’t apply to everyone. Though thank goodness FMLA exists as it is better than the nothing that preceded it, but is it enough?

Globally the United States is among one of the worst nations in terms of parental leave policies and not only in the industrialized world. Sweden is by far the frontrunner with a policy of allowing both parents to take time off until the child is 18 months old. Now this is not utopia because they don’t receive full pay while on parental leave, but they do receive 80 percent of their salary, more than enough with some creative accounting to manage during the leave period.

In India, mothers receive 26 weeks of paid leave. In Japan, parental leave is available for both parents until the child turns one. The leave is compensated but not usually through the employer but rather a social insurance payment structure. In Australia, there is a legal requirement to provide 12 months of leave to new mothers. Working mothers can receive up to $695 USD per week up to 18 weeks. Fathers receive two weeks paid leave at the same rate. In Singapore, working mothers are entitled to either 16 weeks of government-paid maternity leave or 12 weeks of maternity leave. Fathers are entitled to two full weeks of government-paid paternity leave. The list goes on and all of the countries have it better than we do.

The typical scenario for many government employees when they find out the good news they are expecting is that they are also new or early mid-level employees, which means they are accruing leave at the lowest hourly rate and don’t have much leave banked. This means that new parents end up going into the hole for leave which they will need when they are actually sick or for well-baby check-ups, etc. Or they end up going back to work before they are ready to do so, usually feeling resentful, frustrated, anxiety-ridden and helpless.

Now what employer wants their employees feeling like that? My view is the best employees are happy employees. Employees are always going to have personal lives and babies are going to be born. So why not, as an employer, think more creatively and innovate the types of maternity/paternity leave options available. Here are some interesting, innovative options employers should consider:

-Pool leave or implement a leave-share program. For families where both parents are working, it's possible to pool the leave to increase the amount of total leave available to either parent or for parents who don’t necessarily work for the same employer. They would  share their leave with one another for the purposes of extending paid parental leave.

-Look to the private sector. Many leading companies have quite liberal parental leave policies. Netflix, for example, has an up to 52-weeks paid and flexible parental leave policy. Amazon offers a four-week pre-birth and 16-week post-paid parental leave policy. Etsy offers a 26-week paid parental leave policy.

-Create programs that help make the transition back to work smoother for new parents. Amazon in 2015 launched a “Ramp Back” program which helps birth mothers return to work on a reduced schedule for the first eight weeks, helping them get back into the swing of things more easily.

-Apply in-kind benefits. Other smaller-scale companies, like Domo, based in Utah – that feel they cannot provide longer-term and/or fully paid parental leave options – are catering to female employees by offering up to $2000 dollars in gift certificates at stores with maternity clothing lines and other must-have baby items.

A glimmer of hope: According to congress.gov, since 2000 on multiple occasions, several bills have been introduced pushing for paid parental leave for federal employees, most recently in 2017 in the form of the Federal Employees Paid Parental Leave Act.  If this act or a similar subsequent act is introduced and passed, it would be a landmark decision for expectant employees, as essentially new parents could take up to 12 weeks of parental leave, guaranteed under FMLA, with the bonus that six of those weeks would be fully paid. A power move like this would bring the U.S. more on par with global norms and would usher in an era of a happier, less stressed out, better supported and ultimately more productive workforce.

 

Lia Miller is part of the GovLoop Featured Contributor program, where we feature articles by government voices from all across the country (and world!). To see more Featured Contributor posts, click here.

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