America is behind the times on paid parental leave. The only three countries in the world that do not guarantee a paid maternity leave are Papua New Guinea, Oman, and the United States. Paternity leave is scarce among American companies, especially when paid.
The 1993 Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) was intended to partially alleviate this problem, but it only applies to companies with more than fifty workers and only allows twelve weeks of unpaid time off. Companies are welcome to offer longer periods of time or paid time off as a benefit, but the companies must absorb the cost of the program.
Some companies choose to do so, but not many. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) only 12% of American workers have access to paid parental leave. In the low-wage sector, where paid leave would help the most, only 5% of women have access to paid maternity leave.
The Obama administration is working on a 2.2-billion-dollar effort to kick start paid parental leave policies as part of the White House Summit on Working Families. However, discussions of paid parental leave at the federal level have never gotten off the ground, and there is likely to be no legislative action of any sort in the near future — certainly not before the 2016 election.
The only action was taken by the executive branch as federal employees now have six weeks paid parental leave. In the absence of federal programs, four states offer paid parental leave — California, Massachusetts, New Jersey, and Rhode Island. In the other 46 states, it is up to individual employers, where the tech sector is leading the way in parental leave policies.
Facebook offers four fully paid months to both mothers and fathers. Apple gives new mothers up to 14 paid weeks and 6 paid weeks for partners, while Microsoft's policy will change in November to 20 and 12 paid weeks for mothers and partners respectively. Netflix has offered a flexible "unlimited" paid leave policy for up to one year. However, the nature of tech sector jobs is better suited than most professions for flexible schedules.
Should the U.S. join the rest of the world and adopt paid parental leave? Here are some pros and cons of this approach, starting with the pros.
- Employee Morale – There is little doubt that employees would benefit in multiple ways. Not only will financial stress be reduced, the ripple effects through families are profound. Paid leave worldwide has reportedly been linked to higher birth weights, lower infant mortality, greater engagement for fathers, and overall improved health of the child. All of this leads to happier employees who can better focus on work upon their return.
- Improved Individual Productivity – The greater work-life balance enabled by paid parental leave is key to individual employee productivity. Returning to work early produces poor results in distracted employees and more unplanned absences.
- Narrowing Wage/Promotion Gaps – By setting leave expectations and making men eligible for spousal leave, the wage and promotion gap between men and women should be narrowed (although the battle may shift to childless workers versus families).
There are also a few cons, starting with the most often cited one.
- Cost – Even with subsidized assistance, the cost to businesses to accommodate paid leave is significant. Work still has to be completed, and the cost of hiring and training temporary and replacement workers is non-trivial. While individual productivity rises, in most businesses the collective productivity falls because of the necessary shuffling of duties and training. For low-wage jobs, it may reduce hiring or cause a further shift to a flexible part-time work force.
- Expectations – In some fields, even though leave is offered, there may be expectations that employees should not take the full leave or risk being seen as less committed to the company.
- Leaving the Workforce – There seems to be an inflection point on a useful amount of leave. Some studies have shown that prolonged leave (beyond twenty weeks) leads to mothers simply not coming back to the workforce. That may be good or bad for the mother, but it is a con from the business perspective.
In the end, the biggest battle in the paid parental leave argument will be the same as always — who is paying for it? Companies, taxpayers via government subsidies, or some combination? Let's see if any presidential candidate addresses the issue and brings it to the forefront for the next legislature to address. It's not going to happen in this one.