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What Congress can learn from Virgin Group’s new paternity leave policy

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I once debated a lawyer about how businesses should operate in this country. “Employers have to pay people as little as possible in order to make as much profit as possible,” he insisted.

Happily, some employers have taken another path, investing in their employees because they think it’s the smart as well as the right thing to do. This week, the founder of Virgin Group, Richard Branson announced that new dads in his investment division can take up to a year of fully paid paternity leave. That’s a high road, considering that most men lack access to any paid paternity leave and at best cobble together a week or two of vacation.

Virgin is flying high, but they’re not the only ones expanding paid leave. Chipotle Mexican Grill Inc. (CMG) plans to expand paid sick days and vacation to all hourly employees. And before that, Facebook(FB) announced that all contract employees working at the company will now earn at least $15 an hour and 15 paid days off. If the contractor doesn’t offer paid family leave, Facebook will provide a $4,000 new child benefit.

“If you take care of your employees they will take care of your business,” Branson said in a statement. “As a father and now a granddad to three wonderful grandchildren, I know how magical the first year of a child’s life is but also how much hard work it takes.”

Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg said the new steps “the right thing to do for our business and our community … Research shows that providing adequate benefits contributes to a happier and ultimately more productive workforce.” She also wrote an email to work-and-family advocates calling greater access to paid parental leave for women and men “an important step for stronger families and healthier children.”

This progress is exciting. It should be replicated by other employers, as well as expanded by these leaders, since the number of employees currently directly affected is limited. At Virgin, employees have to have been on the job for at least four years. According to The Independent, only about 140 workers based in London and Geneva can take advantage of the policy, although Branson hopes to expand this to the US as well.

Many companies have no such supports at all.The vast majority of restaurant employees, for example, have no access to paid sick days. And Facebook’s move reminds us how many people serve food, clean bathrooms, drive shuttles, or provide security at one company—Facebook, for example—but actually get their paychecks from another, which may be a contractor or vendor. That second company may well offer far lower compensation and much less job security than the first company, leaving those employees in the lurch. Sandberg’s move gives Facebook contractors an incentive to take the high road.

Even though the numbers of employees affected is still too low to reach scale, the impact is huge. These companies are an inspiration to other employers, and an acknowledgment that corporations do, indeed, influence the standards for everyone who works for them or with them.

Organizing by labor and community groups in Silicon Valley and elsewhere has been key to this progress, highlighting the need for policies that won’t make anyone choose between caring for their families and earning a paycheck.

Policymakers should note this corporate leadership and take action, since these moves alone won’t solve the growing income inequality in this country or ease the tremendous strain on working families. We need to guarantee a decent floor of wages and hours and paid time for the rest and recuperation for every single worker—and that requires public policy.

Fortunately we have leaders in this arena as well. To date, thanks to the work of broad and diverse coalitions, three states and 19 cities have passed paid sick days and more wins are on the horizon. Three states, California, New Jersey and Rhode Island, have enacted family leave insurance programs. Many locations have raised the minimum wage, and some have gotten rid of the sub-minimum tipped wage.

Virgin, Facebook, and others are taking important steps, but they remain the exception rather than the rule. Their actions should spur other corporate leaders as well as policymakers at the city, state, and ultimately the federal level to ensure all workers are paid a living wage and able to care for their families. It is the responsible thing to do for families, and for the economy.

Ellen Bravo is the executive director of Family Values @ Work, a network of coalitions in 21 states working for policies, such as paid sick days and family and medical leave insurance.