Benefits Column

Taking Family-Leave Benefits to the Next Level

Employers are beginning to feel the pressure to reconsider their stance on paid family leave, following a number of highly visible announcements. But as those blazing a trail here remind us, HR leaders would be wise to tread carefully.

Friday, December 18, 2015
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The birth of Maxima Chan Zuckerberg to Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and his wife, Priscilla Chan, drove a flurry of media coverage as her famous father and increasingly visible mother coupled the birth announcement with updates of their own: the formation of the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative and dad's two-month-family leave -- half of the four-month parental leave that's available to Facebook employees worldwide. This occasion highlighted what feels like "the year of parental-leave benefits."

Facebook, by no means, is alone in its generosity when it comes to allowing parents to spend more time with their expanding families. A host of companies -- many in the technology sector -- are being lauded for family-leave benefits that begin to approach those of industrialized nations outside the United States. The list of family-friendly employers now includes the likes of Adobe, Amazon, Apple, Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Bloomberg, Goldman Sachs, Google and YouTube, Johnson and Johnson, Microsoft, Twitter and Yahoo.

But as I shared each company's enhanced family leave policies throughout 2015 via social media, I began to receive an increasing number of concerned messages. Some were from employers worried that they can't compete with these new programs, especially if they include their nonexempt employees. Other employers are at a standstill because, if they expand their parental benefits, they want to include their global employees, as Facebook did -- and this approach doesn't come easily. For when employers decide they want to apply a global approach to parental leave, they need to assess all the laws in every country in which they operate. Since the United States has the least-favorable approach to parental leave among industrialized nations, a single approach can become almost impossible. The financial implications alone for companies with a large U.S. presence are daunting. HR executives also have to consider how to incorporate part-time and full-time employees in countries that have a broader leave policy. Finally, most employers will sacrifice offering a single approach to parental leave worldwide and, instead, land on a global philosophy that they modify locally.

Another collection of employers indicated they aren't doing enough with paid sick leave -- and they'd like to fix that shortcoming before they expand maternity and paternity benefits. And, finally, employees struggling with caregiving issues expressed frustration with the attention new parents are receiving. They want broadly defined family leave programs, such as what is provided through state-mandated programs in California, New Jersey and Rhode Island.

Let's take a moment here to look at four points of context on the topic of parental leave.

First, the vast majority of employers are not offering any form of family leave benefits. According to the Society for Human Resource Management's 2015 Employee Benefits Survey, 21 percent of employers provide paid maternity benefits beyond what short-term disability or state law requires. In addition, 17 percent grant paid paternity and/or adoption leave, and 5 percent offer paid surrogacy leave.

Second, if you provide maternity benefits and want to expand the offering to include paternity leave, you need to realize that most men won't take full advantage of it. According to a Boston College Center for Work and Family survey of 1,000 fathers in nearly 300 companies, 42 percent of dads return to work after one week and more than 80 percent go back after two weeks. Many hope Zuckerberg's public embrace of parental leave will encourage more men to stay home longer with their families when the benefit is available to them.

Third, the issue of how to include nonexempt and hourly workers in a parental-leave program is challenging. On Aug. 4, 2015, Netflix announced "an unlimited leave policy for new moms and dads that allows them to take off as much time as they want during the first year after a child's birth or adoption." The policy permits parents to return on a part-time or full-time basis -- or return and then go back out as needed. In announcing the initiative, Netflix Chief Talent Officer Tawni Cranz stated that, by paying employees normally, the company eliminated the headache of switching to state or disability pay.

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What Netflix didn't anticipate was the backlash that followed the announcement after the Huffington Post reported the new policy was two-tiered and didn't apply to employees in its profitable, yet declining, DVD division. Netflix revised its paid family leave policy for hourly employees in early December, so workers in its streaming business will receive 16 weeks of parental leave, hourly customer-service staff will get 14 weeks, and those in its DVD unit will be entitled to 12 weeks.

Fourth, the coverage of the challenges associated with caregiving in the workplace continues to gain traction in the media, as well as through research being done by organizations such as AARP. Indeed, the New York Times recently reviewed the different challenges of maternity/paternity leave versus expanded family leave well by summarizing that some employees will care for their ill family members "longer and more intensively than they did their children."

Some big-name employers are in the final stages of figuring out how to offer a single, global policy for all employees -- not just exempt ones -- and they're including a significant paid annual leave for caregiving for others. Once announced, these programs will most likely shift the definition of what a truly cutting-edge family-leave program looks like.

Carol Harnett is a widely respected consultant, speaker, writer and trendspotter in the fields of employee benefits, health and productivity management, health and performance innovation, and value-based health. Follow her on Twitter via @carolharnett and on her video blog, The Work.Love.Play.Daily.


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