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How employers and politicians have come to embrace paid parental leave

Posted October 21

In one of the more divisive presidential elections in recent history, both Democrat Hillary Clinton and Republican Donald Trump appear to agree on one issue: the United States should improve its ranking in the world on paid family leave.

The candidates have the support of most Americans, according to a new survey.

The 2016 American Family Survey found that 54 percent of respondents supported government requiring employers to offer a paid family leave benefit, while opinions varied on who should pay for it — the government or employers. The survey, now in its second year, was conducted in late July by YouGov for the Deseret News and the Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy at Brigham Young University. It includes responses from 3,000 American adults.

According to the World Policy Analysis Center, 185 of the 193 countries in the United Nations have national paid leave laws. The only outliers are Papua New Guinea, Suriname, a few small South Pacific island states — and the United States. A 2016 Pew Research Center survey also found that the U.S., compared with 40 other countries globally, found the same result.

"The U.S. is absolutely the only high-income country that doesn't, and as you can tell by the numbers, overwhelmingly the world provides it," Jody Heymann of UCLA’s Fielding School of Public Health told NPR.

That's been slowly changing in recent years to address the needs of families as well as commerce.

Among the countries providing maternity leave, paternity leave and other parental leave entitlements, the shortest duration of time off is about two months. The same WPAC report shows median paid parental leave is 25 weeks, though some countries in Eastern Europe, such as Estonia, Bulgaria and Hungary, offer more than a year of paid parental leave.

To finance the benefit, most of these countries use a Social Security-type system where small contributions create a pool of money that workers can draw from when they take leave, NPR reported in an ongoing series of stories on family leave.

"Those contributions to the government may come from employers, employees and the government's general revenue, but they pay it through a social insurance system, so that no business has a heavy burden — if they're a small employer and one person's out, or if they're a larger employer, but disproportionately have young parents as employees," Heymann said. "That's how they spread the responsibility evenly."

Paid leave became a priority after World War II, when European social democracies that emerged from the rubble wanted such policies set in place as an incentive to replenish the population, Ruth Milkman, a sociology professor at CUNY, told NPR.

According to family law experts, European nations needed women in the workplace to help with reconstruction. Meanwhile, women in the U.S. had worked in factories during the war and when the soldiers reclaimed their jobs after the war, women went back into the home, NPR reported. Thus, most American families didn’t need paid leave.

On the rise

The federal government first mandated family medical leave for private and public employers in 1993 with passage of the Family and Medical Leave Act. The law guarantees 12 weeks of unpaid leave for both men and women for the care of a new child, to recover from an illness or care for a loved one.

Paid leave remains up to the employers, which are increasingly providing access to sick leave, personal leave and family leave, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics segment “Beyond The Numbers.”

In 1992, only 2 percent of American workers were offered paid family leave. By 2012, that number was up to 11 percent.

Recent years have seen a boom in paid parental leave in parts of corporate America. Silicon Valley, especially, is in a benefits war to diversify and attract female workers, with companies announcing new leave policies or expanding existing ones, according to NPR.

In a March 2016 national compensation survey looking at employee benefits in the U.S., the Department of Labor found that 13 percent of workers in the private sector have paid parental leave, with a significant majority of those being white-collar professionals.

Hilton Hotels and Resorts began offering paid parental leave to all 40,000 of its employees this year, from top managers to cooks and hotel maids.

Netflix offers unlimited paid parental leave for the child’s first year whether the child is a part of the family by birth or adoption, according to a rundown of firms' leave policies by The Street.

Etsy, an online marketplace for handmade or vintage items, now provides up to six months of paid parental leave along with adoption and surrogacy benefits for its employees.

Google provides 12 weeks of paid leave to both parents while birth mothers get up to 18 weeks. Fathers can also get 18 weeks if they are the primary caregiver.

Facebook offers 17 weeks of paid parental leave, which can be used all in one block or spread out over one year after birth or adoption.

DLA Piper, Reddit, Twitter, Microsoft, Amazon and others are other major companies with their own distinctive paid parental-leave programs.

Even a few states have decided to address the issue in the vacuum of no national mandate on paid leave. California, New Jersey and Rhode Island all have state-mandated paid leave plans in place.

These states’ paid leave programs are made possible through a government fund funded by payroll deductions.

Pros and cons

There are real and perceived risks and benefits for both the employers and employees when it comes to paid family leave.

In an online poll of 1,000 employed adults across America with access to employer benefits, Deloitte — a multinational audit, consulting and tax firm — found that fewer than half of the employee respondents feel their company fosters an environment in which men are comfortable taking parental leave.

More than one-third of respondents felt that taking parental leave would jeopardize their position, while more than half (54 percent overall, 57 percent of men) felt that it would be perceived as a lack of commitment to the job, and 41 percent of those surveyed feel that they would lose out on workplace opportunities.

Meantime, for working mothers and their infants, research has linked paid maternity leave to lower rates of postpartum depression and newborn and infant mortality and higher rates of breastfeeding and childhood immunizations, Forbes reported.

The National Center for Biotechnology Information published a study looking at family leave after childbirth and the mental health of new mothers. The NCBI found that women who had fewer than 12 weeks of maternity leave and fewer than eight weeks of paid leave were more likely to have more symptoms of depression.

“The mother’s mental and physical health can be an important route through which infants are affected by parents’ employment decisions,” the authors wrote.

The Institute for Women’s Policy Research conducted research on paid parental leave in the U.S. and found that paid parental leave offers both men and women the opportunity to spend time with a new child and better adapt to a significant change in family life.

There are benefits for the employers, too, as a powerful recruiting tool to attract the best talent for the company.

Research also indicates that employees who take paid parental leave are much more likely to return from leave with higher levels of engagement. These employees tend to speak highly of their company, strive to work hard and “go the extra mile” and stay with their employer.

The International Foundation of Employee Benefit Plans looked at 1,060 major U.S. employers to understand the prevalence of paid parental leave.

Nearly all major U.S. companies provide some type of paid maternity leave, while roughly one in five companies offer a separate paternity leave policy. The newest trend among employers is to combine the two by offering paid parental leave to all parents for birth or adoption.

The study found that the recent push toward paid parental leave is due to social trends.

In recent years, the demographics of the workforce have shifted, where generation Y and millennial workers have overtaken baby boomers to now make up the largest proportion of the workforce.

With employers searching for competitive advantages in the war on talent, many are offering paid parental leave due to the increasing evidence that these employees place a high value of flexibility, time off and greater involvement in their children’s lives.

The family structure has evolved recently, too. Both parents work in many families, and the long-standing traditional male and female roles at work and home are crossing over, as the Pew Research Center study also concluded.

According to the Pew Research Center, mothers are now the primary breadwinner in 40 percent of all families with children. Thus, fathers are taking on more child-care responsibilities to help out.

Although more companies are starting to offer paid leave, it doesn’t mean it’s common in the workplace. Less than 20 percent of U.S. employers offer paid paternity leave, according to a 2015 survey from the Society for Human Resource management.

When an employer doesn't offer paid family leave, mothers and fathers have found ways to take matters into their own hands.

“People try to store up their sick leave or any vacation time, and then they kind of use it all up so they can spend more time with their newborn or with their adopted child,” Alice Gould, senior economist with the Economy Policy Institute, told Main Street Media Group. “And that’s how people make do. Many people go back to work before they want to, because they simply can’t afford to do so without their wage earning.”

The 2016 election

During President Obama’s 2015 State of the Union address, he framed paid leave as a crucial economic matter. A few days before, he issued an executive memorandum to guarantee federal employees six weeks of paid parental leave.

Now, it has become a key issue for voters in the 2016 election with presidential candidates Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton each promoting their plans on how to offer paid parental leave.

In September, GOP nominee Trump, at the urging of his daughter Ivanka, outlined a child-care and maternity plan that would allow parents to deduct child-care expenses from their income taxes and create dependent care saving accounts. It would also guarantee six weeks of paid maternity leave after childbirth.

Clinton's proposal would offer up to 12 weeks of partially paid leave (at least two-thirds of their wages) through the Family and Medical Leave Act for women and men, whether they become parents through pregnancy, surrogacy or adoption.

Regardless of who becomes the new president, it appears the U.S. ranking on paid family leave would improve if either can fulfill campaign promises on the issue.

Email: solson@deseretnews.com; Twitter: @sether00ski

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