Paid family leave movement gains traction in legislation, workforce

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(Camera Shy photography)
Magna residents Todd and Stefanie Smith recently welcomed a set of twins to their family. Before the twins’ birth, both Todd and Stefanie worked full-time and dealt with the difficulties of paid parental leave. (Camera Shy photography)

See also “Law offers limited family leave protections

Magna resident Stefanie Smith gave birth to twins in November and took advantage of a rare but increasingly widespread benefit for mothers in the U.S.: paid maternity leave.

Smith worked as an invoice analyst for O.C. Tanner, a company that started offering its employees six weeks of paid parental leave in 2018. Smith said she felt “super grateful” for the paid leave, especially because she could use previously-saved paid time off to stay home during the uncomfortable weeks just before the twins’ birth.

“Having to stress about money and work and all of that would have been really difficult,” Smith said. “Having the time off before but then knowing that I could take that time off because I had for sure six weeks afterward was a huge benefit.”

On the other hand, Todd Smith, Stefanie’s husband, did not receive any paid time off for the twins’ birth. Like many parents, he qualified for 12 weeks of unpaid time off through the Family Medical Leave Act, commonly known as FMLA, but the family couldn’t go without a paycheck for that long. He ended up returning to work when he ran out of paid time off when the twins were three weeks old.

“Having him gone … was difficult overall, because all of the sudden, I lose not only the extra hands to help with the babies, but I lose any mental support for me,” Stefanie Smith said. “It just made the experience a whole lot more difficult.”

The Smiths represent both sides of the paid parental leave issue in the U.S. Although many parents are still left without any paid time off after the arrival of a child, the movement toward paid parental leave is gaining traction. A growing number of U.S. and Utah companies offer paid family leave, and the issue is becoming increasingly prominent in both state and federal legislation — in February alone, both Utah and federal legislators introduced bills regarding paid family leave. 

The basics of paid family leave

According to a report by the International Labour Organization, only two countries out of 185 countries and territories with information available do not provide cash benefits to women during maternity leave: the U.S. and Papua New Guinea.

The U.S. is the only country with a developed economy that does not pay maternity benefits, the report says. Other developed economies of the 42 listed in the report include Australia, the United Kingdom, Canada, Iceland, Japan and Spain.

FMLA requires some U.S. companies to provide for up to 12 weeks of unpaid time off for parents who welcome a child through birth, adoption or the foster system. Under FMLA, employers are legally required to provide their employees with a job when they return from leave, though they are not guaranteed their original position.

However, FMLA only applies to companies with more than 50 employees and employees who have worked with a company for at least a year and for 1,250 hours.

Both Todd and Stefanie Smith took advantage of FMLA, which typically runs concurrently with paid leave if paid leave is offered, but agreed it isn’t enough.

“I don’t feel like that’s enough time bonding with your babies before you leave them full-time with somebody else,” Stefanie Smith said.

Legislation for paid leave

Several states have implemented legislation to create paid family leave programs. Paid family leave is more comprehensive than paid parental leave; although policies differ, paid family leave generally covers parental leave and leave for those who need to care for a family member with a serious health condition.

California, New Jersey, New York and Rhode Island currently have paid family leave programs in place, according to a report by the Congressional Research Service. Washington, D.C., Washington and Massachusetts have all passed legislation to implement paid family leave programs in the coming years.

Source: Congressional Research Service

In the Utah Legislature, Rep. Elizabeth Weight, D-Salt Lake City, introduced the Family Leave Amendments bill Feb. 28, which would grant six weeks of paid parental leave to state employees. She proposed a similar bill in 2018 that was held in committee. 

The bill is limited as it would only apply to state employees; however, Weight said she has started the process for a summer study for the potential of statewide parental leave. 

According to Weight, the program would be funded like Washington’s program, which is jointly financed by employees and the employer for companies with more than 50 employees and employee-financed for smaller companies.

Legislation is also in the works for paid family leave at the federal level.

The nonprofit PL+US is working to push such legislation forward. It was founded in 2016 with one goal, according to its website: “win high quality paid family leave for everyone in the U.S. by 2022.”

According to PL+US Legislative Director Shawn Gaylord, the organization functions more like a campaign because of its single focus on paid family leave.

“Working families need some relief when issues pop up that pop up in so many people’s lives,” Gaylord said. “We just believe that there should be a way that people can be supported through these challenging times. Much of the world does this, some states already provide this kind of assistance, so we just think it’s an idea whose time has come on the federal level as well.”

Gaylord meets with players on Capitol Hill to lobby for paid family leave and keeps a close eye on related bills. He said the key federal paid family leave legislation right now is the Family and Medical Insurance Leave Act, or the FAMILY Act. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-New York, introduced the FAMILY Act Feb. 12. 

“Basically, it would create a comprehensive national paid family and medical leave insurance program,” Gaylord said. “It would provide everyone with access to paid leave to care for a new child or seriously ill family member or just their own health concerns that require some time away from work.”  

According to the National Partnership for Women and Families, the FAMILY Act would provide eligible workers with a portion of their wages for up to 12 weeks in a year to address their own serious health condition, the serious health condition of a close family member, to care for a new child or for military caregiving purposes.

The bill would involve creating a family and medical leave insurance fund paid for by employees and employers, who would contribute a small amount of each paycheck to the fund. It would also create an Office of Paid Family and Medical Leave.

Gaylord said he’s optimistic about the bill’s progress, even though it’s been a Democrat-only bill so far as the two parties approach the paid family leave problem differently.

“There is growing interest from both sides of the aisle in recognizing that this is a problem for American families, but there needs to be some kind of solution,” Gaylord said. “The differences so far are exactly what that solution would be.”

According to Gaylord, Democratic solutions center around a payroll tax paid by employers and employees. Republican solutions rely on tapping into Social Security money early or delaying retirement.

Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Florida, introduced the Economic Security for New Parents Act in August 2018.

The act would give parents the option to pull a portion of their Social Security benefits to pay for parental leave, according to Rubio’s website. Parents who take the option would delay their Social Security retirement benefits.

“I’m optimistic that the fact that there’s shared recognition of the problem that needs to be solved is a helpful step,” Gaylord said.

A Pew Research Center poll found 82 percent of Americans say mothers should receive paid leave following birth or adoption and 69 percent say fathers should receive the same. Gaylord said the high public support for paid family leave makes it more likely paid family leave policies will progress in Congress.

Businesses following the trend

As legislation progresses, an increasing number of businesses, including several in Utah, are joining the movement to offer paid family leave to their employees. Mercer’s “Survey on Absence and Disability Management,” released Jan. 16, found 40 percent of surveyed employers now offer paid parental leave, up from 24 percent in 2015.

BYU human resources professor Troy Nielson said paid family leave can be beneficial for companies despite the initial costs. Such costs include the salary of the employees who take leave and the costs required to find temporary replacements.

“Companies that are magnets for attracting and retaining talent try to be there to help their employees in the most traumatic and stressful kinds of life situations,” Nielson said. “So, yeah, will it cost will it cost the company something? Yeah. … But they’ve probably earned that back multifold from that employee’s loyalty.”

According to Nielson, when an employee takes leave, companies usually do not bring in temporary help to cover the employee’s roles. Instead, the employee’s responsibilities are disseminated among team members or another employee will be temporarily promoted.

“From a company standpoint, if you’re offering purely parental leave, … if the birth rates in the culture tend to be low, then it doesn’t have that much impact,” Nielson said about the fiscal impact of paid leave. “It still has some impact, but not as much as the cost to go find and hire new talent.”

Gaylord emphasized that paid family leave can be a win-win situation for both employers and employees.

“We would make the case, and a lot of companies will agree, that there’s a financial benefit for companies in not losing workers on a regular basis and having to spend money on recruitment and training and retention,” Gaylord said.

There’s currently a shortage of talent in the U.S. job market, according to Nielson, which may be one reason why so many companies are beginning to offer paid family leave. He said big companies and tech companies, including Silicon Slopes firms, tend to offer paid family leave because of the high demand for talented employees.

Adobe announced a new paid family leave policy effective Jan. 1 that gives all eligible employees up to 16 weeks of paid parental leave. The new policy eliminates a previous distinction between primary and non-primary caregivers, according to the company’s website.

Utah-based Domo’s website says the company now offers 10 weeks paid maternity leave and two weeks paid paternity leave. Weave, a tech start-up in the valley, announced in summer 2018 that it would begin to offer 12 weeks paid maternity leave and six weeks paid paternity leave. Dell EMC, which has a Draper location, started offering four weeks of paid parental leave in 2017, according to Dell’s website.

The paid parental leave movement goes beyond Utah’s tech industries. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints announced in summer 2017 it would begin offering six weeks of paid maternity leave, according to a previous article in The Daily Universe. The University of Utah began offering six weeks of paid parental leave starting Jan. 1.

University of Utah Chief Human Resources Officer Jeff Herring said the university noted the trend toward paid parental leave and wanted to stay competitive.

“We did some pure comparisons,” Herring said. “We’re not on the cutting edge of it, but we’re also not going to get left behind, either.”

Herring said the current paid parental leave policy at the University of Utah will be a two-year pilot program to figure out how the university will fund parental leave moving forward. It was implemented after a group of staff council members began advocating for paid leave.

“We started looking at it as administrators, and really came together with the plan that I think helps … but also is fiscally responsible and what we are able to do at the university,” Herring said. 

Overlooked 

Stefanie Smith said she’s grateful for the paid maternity leave her company offered her following her twins’ birth. However, she added she would love to see more companies offering the same benefits, citing the difficulty of recovering from birth and the importance of bonding with new family members.

“It’s not just emotionally hard, it’s physically hard,” she said. “It’s just a difficult process all around.”

If it were up to her, Smith said, more companies would offer paid parental leave and include fathers in the policies, too. She said paternity leave is an aspect of the equation that often goes overlooked.

“You need that time to bond as a family,” she said. “You need that emotional support from each other, time to bond with baby. All of that is so important, so valuable.”

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