Paid parental leave should be U.S. law — not just a company perk

August 10, 2015, 5:27 PM UTC
Businessman consoling baby
Photograph by Getty Images

This month, Netflix announced it would offer employees unlimited parental leave for up to a year. It’s a smart business move, expected to enhance retention and productivity, but the question is will other companies follow, and are these company perks enough? As Wharton professor Stew Friedman points out, it’s a way to appeal to millennials who “saw their parents forsake aspects of life-like family life in their pursuit of career success and didn’t always like what they saw.” When YouTube CEO Susan Wojcicki wrote about her own experience at Google (GOOG), she noted the direct connection between the company’s increase in paid maternity leave (from 12 to 18 weeks) and the 50% drop in women leaving the company.

A day after Netflix (NFLX) made its parental leave announcement, Microsoft (MSFT) announced an increase in paid leave, and likely more will follow. But don’t expect a stampede. Many companies have been cutting back on leave in recent years out of a short-sighted view of work and family policies as “fringe” rather than integral to the company’s core mission.

For many small businesses, extensive paid leave is not practical. Further, most of the companies implementing generous leave policies are tech companies. While some of those policies, like Facebook’s (FB), extends to contractors and impact lower-wage workers, most do not. We need policies that work for everyone, not just white-collar or Silicon Valley employees.

That’s why those of us working on this issue support a social insurance fund like the one proposed in the Family Act, introduced by U.S. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York and U.S. Congresswoman Rosa DeLauro of Connecticut. Employees and employers make small contributions and pool them so that workers can draw a significant portion of their pay while caring for a newborn or a serious personal or family illness. The leave is a modest 12 weeks and not unlimited, but this approach versus a company-by-company approach would have a greater impact on the majority of working families.

Please note: the Netflix announcement used the words “unlimited leave”—but the leave is, in fact, limited to a year. For most of us, that falls in the category of winning the lottery or running into a fairy godmother. But just across the border in Canada, a year is the amount of time all women receive (not fully paid, but at 55%). In 38 other developed countries, the average fully paid-time off for new mothers is five to six months.

What’s more, those countries’ policies apply to all female employees (and many to men as well). Netflix’s benefit, apparently, is limited to those who work in streaming and are salaried – leaving out part-timers and those hourly workers in the distribution centers who put our Netflix DVDs in that little red envelope and make sure it gets to us in time. A campaign has started to convince Netflix to extend the leave to all of its staff.

A social insurance fund will solve these problems. It will make paid leave feasible and beneficial for every employer, with the same retention and productivity boosts that Netflix seeks. It will also apply to all employees and cover the diverse reasons family members occasionally need leave. That means stronger families and also a stronger economy, where having a baby or tending to a parent with cancer does not turn into financial disaster.

Netflix and the other companies who are leading the way on paid leave remind us that the provisions in Family Act are not just a needed minimum, but actually minimal. Surely the richest nation in the word can begin to catch up with its economic competitors. A feast would be nice, but let’s at least start with basic sustenance.

Ellen Bravo directs Family Values @ Work, a national network of coalitions in 21 states working for policies like paid sick days and family and medical leave insurance.

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