Family and Parenting

Bankrolling Parenthood: changing parental leave policies in America

April 27, 2017

Nathan Van de Graaff’s wife was eight months pregnant with twins when he found out he was being transferred from Intel’s Santa Clara, California, office to Phoenix, Arizona, and he began to panic.

California state law offers up to six weeks of parental leave at 55 percent pay, but Arizona doesn’t offer any paid family leave. Because the twins were their first children, Van de Graaff needed to be home with his wife after they were born, but couldn’t afford to take time off without pay.

President Clinton's remarks at the signing of the FMLA of 1993.

via MCamericanpresident and the Miller Center

“I was trying to see if there was a way we could keep renting an apartment in California so I could keep my residency and still qualify for those benefits, but there was no way we could make it work. I didn’t know what we were going to do,” he said.

Van de Graaff’s plight is not unique. Under the Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993, mothers are allowed 12 weeks of unpaid maternity leave. However the law doesn’t cover anyone working for small businesses, and many part-time workers do not meet the qualifications. In fact, an estimated 40 percent of the workforce is not eligible for family leave under the FMLA, according to the National Partnership for Women and Families.

The United States is one of only two countries in the world that does not offer some form of legally-protected paid time off for working mothers after childbirth—the other is Papua New Guinea. This lack of federally-mandated support for working parents puts an added strain on families and forces one parent, usually the mother, to take extended time off work without pay to care for children. Because measures to improve family leave policies at the federal level have not made considerable progress, individual states, companies and even cities have begun implementing their own policies to make childcare more practical for working parents.

Parental Leave around the World

Most industrialized nations, aside from the U.S., offer at least three months of paid leave for new mothers, and many countries offer shared leave for mothers and fathers to divide between them, depending on their needs. Sweden, one of the best countries for parental leave, offers 480 days of paid shared leave per child, and the United Kingdom offers 280 days.

As of 2014, eight countries are now offering incentives for fathers to take parental leave, but in the United States, where 70 percent of children live in households where every adult in the home is employed, a father having the luxury of paid family leave is a rarity.

Stacey Smith, an assistant research professor of chemistry at Brigham Young University, got lucky when it came to family leave. She found out she was pregnant with her first child after she had agreed to teach Fall 2014 classes, and her due date was the first day of fall semester. Her husband, an accountant, was able to take that semester off work to be with their child, because tax season had not yet started, and Smith took the next semester off. Child care, Smith said, is less of a balance and more of a juggling act.

“Everyone knows there is a limited amount of time that a woman can have children and that’s often when you are just getting into your career,” she said. “[It puts me at a disadvantage] because many of my male colleagues have stay-at-home wives so they are able to focus full-time on their work, and I can’t.”

Stacey Smith, a new mother and an assistant research professor of Chemistry and Biochemistry at Brigham Young University, shares her experience on shared parental leave.

Bringing the Issue Home

Because there is no federally-mandated paid family leave in America, some states, like California, are creating laws of their own to give families more support in the workplace. California’s law was the first in the country, passed in 2004. New Jersey, Washington and Rhode Island have since followed, though Washington’s law is not yet in effect due to lack of funding and an implementation deadline.

Cities are also weighing in on the issue. In February 2015, Seattle Mayor Ed Murrary and councilmember Jean Godden proposed four weeks of paid leave for city employees with new babies. San Francisco, Washington D.C., Chicago and Austin, Texas also provide paid leave for city employees.

Murray noted that the paid leave plan will cost Seattle about $1.4 million per year, but the expense, he said, is worth it.

“Paid parental leave is good for our workers, good for our children and good for our economy,” Godden said in a press conference.

Debating the Worth of Parenthood

''We believe that all parents and caregivers - regardless of gender - need more flexibility and support in the workplace.'' --2012 Democratic National Platform

During campaigns for the 2012 elections, the Democratic Platform ran on the premise of pursuing policies that would actively value families, saying, “We believe that all parents and caregivers – regardless of gender – need more flexibility and support in the workplace. We support passing the Healthy Families Act, broadening the Family and Medical Leave Act and partnering with states to move toward paid leave.”

Democratic Senator Kirsten Gillibrand of New York introduced legislation in 2013 that would require employers to offer new fathers and mothers three months of paid leave at 66 percent of their salaries, but the bill, titled “The Family Act,” has been stalled in Congress ever since.

In the 2015 State of the Union address, President Obama said he is not content with seeing family leave become sidelined again. He argued that because it is often an economic necessity for both parents to work, changing family leave policies must be a priority.

President Obama rallies for paid family leave (via CNN)

“It’s time we stop treating childcare as a side issue, or a women’s issue, and start treating it like the national economic priority that it is for all of us,” he said.

Kelly Patterson, a professor of political science at Brigham Young University, predicts that family leave will become a tactic used to gain favor with women and families in the next election. If the Republican candidate is more moderate, he said, the Democratic party will likely use their position on family leave to show that the Democratic candidate is more responsive to middle-class concerns than the Republican candidate.

“This will wholly depend on who the 2016 nominee will be for the Republicans,” he said.

Bringing Families to Work

Hilary Pearce Williams, an ASL interpreter in Syracuse, Utah, just gave birth to her second son and cannot take any paid maternity leave except for her accrued sick days. Her husband, a waiter and student, cannot take any time off and has no paternity benefits. Most American parents are in the same position as Williams’ husband. In fact, only 12 percent of Americans work for companies that offer paid family leave.

Many companies, particularly in the technology industry, are changing their family policies to attract more women to their companies. In 2007, Google began offering 18 weeks of paid leave to new mothers, and subsequently found that the rate at which mothers left the company fell by 50 percent.

''Paying for eight weeks of bonding time enables moms and dads to more easily take this important time with their children and models an inclusive culture.'' --Haley Hirai, Intel

In March 2015, global telecommunications company Vodafone Group announced a new global policy that requires all of its 30 operating companies around the world to offer at least 16 weeks of paid maternity leave. In addition, for the first six months after returning to work, new mothers will be able to work just 30 hours per week and still earn their full-time salaries.

Other companies are trying different tactics. Facebook and Apple announced in 2014 that they would begin paying for their female employees to freeze their eggs, in hopes of attracting more young women. They may have had good intentions, but some parents aren’t convinced this move was genuine.

“It’s like these companies are saying ‘we want you to be mothers, but not right now. We want you to work right now and have children later,’” Nathan Van de Graaff said.

Intel, perhaps, saw what Apple and Google did not. In January, the tech giant announced it would begin offering eight weeks of paid “bonding time” to new mothers and fathers, in addition to whatever benefits their state offers. Intel’s move was a shock to many, including the Van de Graaffs, but Intel says it only made sense when they began trying to make their employee benefits more attractive for women.

Parents in the United Kingdom, where parental leave policies are very generous, talk about their experiences of sharing child care between them in the first year, and why they think Shared Parental Leave is such a good thing.

via James Miller, vimeo

“Intel is committed to continuing to foster an environment where employees can build their best careers and lives,” said Haley Hirai, a communications representative for Intel. “Paying for eight weeks of bonding time enables moms and dads to more easily take this important time with their children and models an inclusive culture that provides benefits and programs which support well-being for Intel families.”

The Future of Family Leave

The changes at these tech companies are perhaps the beginning of a new awareness in the United States about the needs of working parents. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, nearly two-thirds of women with children under 6 work. Finally, parental leave is beginning to become an issue that neither the United States government nor companies can ignore.

“I think having paid time off will help new moms think ‘I can manage this; it’s doable.’ Now it won’t be so crazy where women have to be back at work three weeks after giving birth,” Van de Graaff said. “There are plenty who did it, but I think the time off is a way for Intel to accomplish their goals of bringing more female talent to the company, and it’s a nice little perk for dads too.”

Meg Monk is a senior in the BYU School of Communications studying print and multimedia journalism with a minor in Middle East studies. After graduation, she would like to find a job that would allow her to travel the world, eat chocolate and get paid for it.

read more: