When I first heard my daughter Lincoln cry as she came out of the womb at 6am on a Tuesday morning last September, I was numb, sleep-deprived, and in disbelief. The baby had arrived, and however brave a face I tried to put up, I was not ready. The day before, I had a life of my own that I shared with my pregnant partner Kara. The next, I was responsible not only for myself and an exhausted partner, but also a living, breathing, newborn daughter being handed over to me to claim as my own.
The disorientation was profound. And yet, as a father, I had not endured hours of labor and delivery. Nor did I have to carry a fetus for nine months. Nor did I have months of breastfeeding awaiting me.
I did, however, have three months of paid leave to help the mother of my child recover from delivery and make the transition to newborn care. My employer allows a new father to use paid sick leave to care for a newborn, and I took advantage of the option. I considered myself incredibly fortunate in the ensuing months, as I encountered the challenges of adapting to life with a newborn infant who requires care and attention every hour of the day. Sleep deprivation. Changing diapers. Cleaning breast-feeding equipment. Going to doctor appointments for medical check-ups and vaccines. Shopping. Cleaning. Laundry. It never seemed to end. But ultimately, other than the challenges of caring for my family, the most anxiety I felt stemmed merely from trying to find time to do things I love, like reading or exercising. Never did I have to worry about such ‘mundane’ concerns as paying the bills. I was exceedingly grateful, but too tired and distracted to recognize and appreciate how paid leave was a rare privilege that currently does not extend to many if not most American parents, who must go back to work within days or weeks, simply because they cannot afford to take time off work (under the Family and Medical Leave Act, eligible employees who work for companies with 50 or more employees have the option to take 12 weeks of leave, but it is unpaid).
The U.S. is the only country in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) that does not mandate paid leave for working mothers, and though paid leave for working fathers is not as widely available (and of shorter duration) among OECD countries, the U.S. is also in the minority of developed nations that have no national policy making paid leave available to fathers. This is unfortunate. Not only is paid leave a boon to working families. It can also improve the bottom line for Corporate America.
An increasing number of studies provides evidence that paid leave confers several benefits to working families and their children. As I have written before, studies have shown that paid leave can reduce the risk of infant mortality, increase the likelihood of a child getting his polio and measles vaccines, and reduce the incidence of depression in mothers (which improves her mood and thus her ability to positively engage with her infant child). Moreover, it can lengthen the time a mother breast feeds, the benefits of which are widely discussed (for example, according to one study summarizing the available evidence, breastfeeding can lower ‘infant and child morbidity and mortality by reducing the risk of infection.’) and include the possibility that extended breastfeeding can improve the long-term cognitive development of children (though it is difficult to parse out the specific contribution of breastfeeding, as IQ can be influenced by mother-child bonding, home life, school systems, the quality of intellectual stimulation during development, and a host of other factors).
As for paternity leave, a policy brief by the U.S. Department of Labor indicates that paternity leave facilitates a father’s early, active, and long-lasting engagement in the life of his child, which can have important positive effects on the child’s developmental outcomes. For example, results from one study ‘indicate that fathers who take longer leave are more involved in child care-taking activities nine months later.’ The Labor Department brief writes that ‘when fathers are more engaged with their children, their children have better developmental outcomes,’ such as ‘fewer behavioral problems and improved cognitive and mental health outcomes.’ Moreover, one study analyzing data from four OECD countries (Australia; Denmark; United Kingdom; United States) finds ‘some evidence that children with highly involved fathers tend to perform better in terms of cognitive test scores,’ though it adds that ‘[e]vidence on the association between fathers’ involvement and behavioral outcomes was however weak,’ and that what seems to matter ‘is the quality and not the quantity of father-child interactions.’
The research thus far may not be conclusive, but it is strongly suggestive, and intuition suggests it is only a matter of time before the research confirms the long-term benefits of paid family leave for both parents and children. Cognitive and behavioral characteristics are deeply impacted by psychosocial relationships. Since those relationships begin with the bond between parent and newborn child, it is reasonable to infer that the parent-child bond is critical to the long-term health and well-being of children. Paid leave, by providing the time and resources for new parents to devote their full attention to newborn care, can go a long way toward cementing the parent-child bond and optimizing the environment in which parents raise their children in the first, critical months after birth.
But it is not just families and children that benefit. Paid leave is good for business as well. This is the message I took away from a conversation with Angela Romei, director of the paid leave program at Panorama, a self-described ‘non-profit action tank working to solve global problems through audacious thinking and bold action.’ Bringing together ‘diverse perspectives to spark new ideas that create change on issues affecting people, the planet and productivity,’ Panorama partners ‘with ambitious leaders to help strengthen their organizations and advance priority issues.’
One of these priority issues is paid family leave. Ms. Romei writes in an article posted on Panorama’s website that ‘[m]y team and I walk companies through the research and resources we offer through The Paid Leave Project. The comprehensive playbook provides a step-by-step guide to implement paid leave and an analysis of the advantages companies can expect.’ According to Panorama, the adoption of paid leave policies provides several benefits to companies. Paid leave helps attract talent, improve retention rates, avoid turnover and recruitment costs, improve employee morale, and burnish the overall image of the company.
In her article, Ms. Romei cites data based on data and interviews compiled by Boston Consulting Group:
Women with paid family leave are 93 percent more likely to be working one year after childbirth than women who take no leave.
In a Deloitte survey, 77 percent of workers claimed that paid family leave would influence their choice of employer.
In another survey, more than 80 percent of companies with paid family leave reported a positive impact on morale, and more than 70 percent reported a boost in productivity.
Paid leave signals a company’s corporate values.
Paid family leave attracts media attention and thus burnishes a company’s image to potential employees.
In short, offering paid leave attracts talent and boosts the productivity and morale of workers, while helping companies to avoid costs associated with losing employees and having to recruit people to replace them. Nonetheless, it is still true that the cost-benefit analysis is not necessarily the same for every company, as each company differs in size, profitability, workforce composition, and other characteristics. There is no one-size-fits-all policy. As Ms. Romei points out, large companies with salaried employees have a set of priorities and resources that are not necessarily the same as the priorities and resources at hand for small companies with hourly wage employees. Moreover, not all large companies are the same, and not all small companies are the same. In short, Ms. Romei emphasizes, advocates of paid leave must understand and acknowledge how complicated an endeavor it is to convince thousands of unique companies, operating across a large and diverse country with a great deal of regional heterogeneity, that paid leave makes sense for their business. This is true even in a tight labor market where competition for talent can force a company’s hand. Six months paid leave may make sense for company A, while three months paid leave works better for company B. Some companies can afford to pay 100 percent of an employee’s salary, while others can afford to pay a fraction of that, and the fraction a company can pay likely varies across companies. It may also be necessary for a company to customize paid leave to different employees within a company, as the degree of responsibility associated with a specific position in the company may impact the amount of time the employee in that position can take off.
It is not surprising, then, that a consensus on national paid leave policy remains elusive, and why only 13 percent of U.S. workers in the private sector currently have access to paid family leave. But according to Ms. Romei, companies are increasingly considering whether and how to implement paid family leave policies. Their reluctance to adopt a policy primarily reflects a lack of data on its efficacy and how it might dovetail with their business given the specific constraints under which they operate. This is why The Paid Leave Project at Panorama has put itself on the front lines, initiating discussions with Corporate America in an attempt to learn how paid leave impacts the bottom line.
Currently operating under a one-year ‘learning grant’, the team that oversees the paid leave initiative is undertaking a vigorous effort to talk to U.S. companies about how paid leave impacts their business. Ms. Romei heads this effort. With a background in business and experience in change-management consulting, Ms. Romei describes herself as pro-business and pro-family. She has had 33 conversations (14 in-depth) in the past 2 months and aims to talk to 140 of the largest firms in the U.S., as part of a systematic effort to gain data from Corporate America on how paid leave makes sense for American business.
The effort has only just begun, and the crucial task right now is to obtain information. Knowledge is power when it comes to empowering companies to offer paid family leave to their employees. According to Ms. Romei, companies want to offer paid leave, but they need to know it can work for them. Convincing them that paid leave can work for them starts with gathering data on the potential return on investment.
Some companies in Corporate America have already taken the lead, releasing data to encourage their counterparts in the corporate world. In January 2016, for example, Nestle introduced its Parent Support Policy (PSP), which gives Nestle employees the option to take up to 14 weeks of paid leave and 12 additional weeks of unpaid leave. In addition, as described on its website, Nestle provides (1) ‘The ability to return to work part-time during the 26-week leave window’, (2) ‘Medical and prescription drug coverage for infertility treatments’, (3) ‘A free breast pump or a credit toward an upgraded breast bump (if desired), along with access to a lactation specialist and additional materials including books or nursing bras for breastfeeding mothers’, (4) ‘Access to Nestlé’s Maternity Support Program that provides resources, counselors and guidance for new mothers’, and (5) ‘A “baby bundle” filled with gifts for a growing family, including a stuffed animal, baby bib, infant skin and lip care, nutrition reading materials, and a baby book to encourage reading from Day 1, along with Gerber coupons for use towards baby food and/or infant formula.’ These benefits are available to biological parents, adoptive parents, foster parents, and domestic partners.
A year and a half after the Nestle rollout, preliminary data are in. In the first year of PSP, (1) 585 Nestle U.S. employees opted to take advantage of paid leave, (2) ‘30 percent of participants were hourly and commissioned workers’, (3) Men in hourly wage positions were 40 percent more likely to take paid leave than men in salaried positions, and perhaps most importantly, (4) ‘97.6 percent of Nestle U.S. employees who used any form of parental leave were still with Nestle 6 months after their return.’ Moreover, while Nestle acknowledges that ‘many factors can influence health, healthcare practices and costs…early results show that newborns who benefited from the policy are less likely to need a sick visit, are more likely to have at least one immunization, and have lower health care costs.’ Specifically, (1) ‘100 percent of newborns benefiting from Nestle’s paid parental leave policy received at least one immunization’, (2) ‘Healthcare costs for infants who took Nestle paid leave were 12 percent lower’ (though this calculation ‘excludes high-cost claimants, for example those with extensive premature healthcare needs or genetic conditions that required additional care’) and (3) ‘Mothers who took Nestle’s paid leave policy reported lower rates of anxiety and filed fewer mental health claims.’
Ms. Romei, a single mother of two daughters who writes honestly about how she was once unsuccessful when looking for an employer who offered paid leave in case she needed it, says she has been highly encouraged by the possibilities for paid leave since she began as director of the paid leave initiative at Panorama. She is excited by the data Nestle released. She enthusiastically discusses companies like RaceTrac, a chain of gas station convenience stores in the South, which has implemented paid leave in an effort to retain female employees (and extends leave benefits to fathers as well in an effort to be inclusive). She praises the outdoor clothing and gear company Patagonia for publicly extolling how auspicious paid leave and on-site child care has been for its business (Patagonia writes, for example, that while ‘[g]ood child care is expensive…at Patagonia we estimate that we earn back 90-125% of our paid subsidy for our on-site child care program’). In short, Ms. Romei has come to believe that paid family leave makes good sense for American business.
If paid leave is good for families and business, why has the U.S. been remiss in adopting a national policy paid leave? No major federal law has been passed since the Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993. Only five states (Rhode Island, California, New York, New Jersey, and Washington) and the District of Columbia mandate paid family leave. The state of Washington initially passed a measure in 2007, but lawmakers subsequently could not find a way to fund it. In June of this year, however, it passed an additional measure to fund paid leave, and many will be watching to see how it fares.
It is not for lack of effort. The Strong Families Act introduced by Senators Deb Fischer and Angus King would create ‘a tax credit for employers who voluntarily offer at least four weeks of paid leave’ (which ‘would be counted in addition to any state-based FMLA paid leave’), would be available to eligible employees on an hourly basis, and would allow ‘part-time employees to be eligible for a pro-rata portion of FMLA leave.’ During his presidential campaign last year, Senator Marco Rubio proposed a similar plan calling for a 25 percent nonrefundable tax break to companies offering 4-12 weeks of paid leave. But some argue the plan would not incentivize companies not already providing paid leave, thus subsidizing companies currently providing it. The FAMILY Act proposed by Senator Kirsten Gillibrand and Representative Rosa DeLauro would offer 12 weeks paid leave for ‘new mothers and fathers and people with serious personal or family health issues’. It would cover 66 percent of wages, be financed by a 0.4 percent increase in payroll tax (split between the employer and the employee), and be ‘administered through a new Office of Paid Family and Medical Leave.’
None of these plans has come to fruition. As noted, one reason seems to be that the U.S. economy is a vast and complex system consisting of thousands of private enterprises with their own unique priorities and resources. It is difficult to reach agreement on a plan that makes sense for most or all companies. Moreover, while many companies may want to offer paid leave in principle, they may be reluctant to be implement paid leave in practice because they must balance priorities and resources that change year to year.
One also runs up against longstanding social norms based on obsolete demographics. Society still tends to view men as breadwinners and women as caregivers. But the workforce is no longer the male-dominated force that it once was (though many industries undoubtedly still are). Women make up 47 percent of the U.S. labor force, and as they enroll in and graduate from college at higher rates than men, women’s labor force participation rate likely will continue to rise. Companies may eventually be unable to ignore paid leave as an essential component of the package of benefits they must offer to attract and retain talent.
Ultimately, men also have to step up and join the cause. Paid leave often seems to imply maternity leave. This is understandable given norms cited above, as well as the crucial role mothers play in the early months of childrearing. But women should not be the only ones who have to make a choice between work and family. If men step up, both men and women will be fighting for the same cause of work-life balance in the service of raising their child(ren) together. The role of the man as sole breadwinner is increasingly being relegated to the past. In a world where women are a significant part of the workforce, and in which grandparents and aunts and uncles and cousins and other extended family may not live nearby to help out, it is up to the mother and father to balance work and childcare.
That is one of the many reasons paternity leave also makes sense. When men start to take leave, they change the norms and expectations about the roles of men and women in families. We live in a society in which it is mainly women who take leave. She takes leave, while men in the office continue to work. She falls behind. It makes her less willing to take leave. It also makes the need for paid leave seem less imminent because only half the work force demands it. But when everyone, men and women, fathers and mothers, demand it, companies will likely have no choice if they want to retain talent.
Toms Shoes Founder Blake Mycoskie recently wrote about his experience taking 12 weeks of paternity leave. He describes the lessons he learned from intimate daily bonding with his wife and son during those first crucial months of childrearing. He also argues that paid leave makes sense for businesses: ‘Frankly, it’s nuts that more companies haven’t figured out what a win-win paid family leave is.’ For example, he continues, ‘I have a hugely talented friend who could afford to take only one week off when his son was born; he was so upset that he left for a new job. What a loss to that company!’
Advocates of paid family leave need more allies like Blake Mycoskie.
Photo credit: Getty Images