What a banner year 2015 was for paid maternity leave.
Bloomberg, Accenture, Spotify, Netflix, Vodaphone and eBay are just a few well-known employers that earned kudos in 2015 as they ratcheted up their paid leave offerings, prompting others to review their own policies, looking for ways to compete for top talent. And thus, the cycle continued.
Amen to that.
But while we urge this employer momentum to continue, let’s remember that we just celebrated the 23rd anniversary of the Family Medical Leave Act. We in the United States have an unique perspective when it comes to paid family leave: Simply put, we remain the only developed country without a paid leave law—and the likelihood that a new mom will have access to paid leave through her employer remains far too low.
Currently, employer-offered programs cover only 12 percent of private sector workers, and even among those working moms who can swing some paid time off by hoarding sick or vacation time, new research finds 1 in 4 return to work within two weeks of giving birth.
All of which means that in 2016, millions of new working moms still will have to choose between work and caring for a newborn. (By contrast, every Working Mother 100 Best Company offers fully paid maternity leave—on average, 8 weeks of it.)
Paid leave has certainly become a stump issue for the current crop of presidential candidates—and that’s great. However, the FAMILY Act, which would create an employee-funded program akin to unemployment insurance, remains stalled in Congress even as some cities and states—including New York, Connecticut and Washington, DC—make progress in the fight.
As for the relatively few companies that do offer paid leave, the question of company culture remains. For just because a policy is written down doesn’t mean managers will encourage its use. If company leadership doesn’t actively communicate its support for paid leave, make use of it themselves or hold managers accountable to its use, then the message to employees is clear: Take paid leave at your own career peril.
For the many companies waking up to the necessity of paid leave, creating the supportive culture that encourages its use is the next step to becoming an employer of choice. To be sure, it’s a step that leads down a path that never ends. Just ask Johnson & Johnson and IBM, which have earned a place on the Working Mother 100 Best Companies for 30 years in a row or GE, a 124-year-old company that opted to completely revamp its family-friendly policies last year.
So bring on the big numbers of paid leave weeks at digital companies and every employer that wants to compete with them for talent. Who doesn’t like a high score? Just know that this isn’t a game. For most employees, accessing paid family leave will be the first time a major life event requires them to ask for substantial support from their employer.
And thus, it is right at this moment that employers must rise to the challenge of truly supporting their employees—vulnerable new parents seeking just a few weeks of pure family time in a career that will likely last decades. Know that such support will be remembered, noted and shared not only by that employee, but by your entire workforce (and even your customers and community), resulting in better engagement, lower turnover and improved health to mother and child.
Also read: 3 Ways to Maximize Employee Engagement
To all employers, our politicians and our society, let us rise to the challenge and support our new parents.