It seems every watershed moment of the past 30 years falls short of the past 11 months: wearing masks in public, distancing from family and friends, maniacal handwashing, economic uncertainty, and hearing every day that hundreds – then thousands, then tens of thousands – of people had their lives altered because of COVID-19.
Times like these and our responses are paramount for setting the tone of the next several years. Companies, too, have a responsibility to reflect on current practices considering how the pandemic has shifted work expectations. Perhaps nothing has emerged as frequently in these HR discussions as adjusting parental leave policies at a time when employees’ parental obligations are challenging their scope for work.
What is Parental Leave?
Parental leave is a job-protected policy that allows employees to take a leave of absence for an extended period to care for a child, usually immediately after birth. In pre-pandemic times, this policy discussed employee and employer needs in sterile, archaic terms. More recently, companies have updated their policies to include all genders and parenting modes, such as adoption or foster care.
Why is Parental Leave Important?
Parental leave is important because studies consistently prove the benefits for employees, their families, and employers. Some of these benefits include fewer instances of post-partum depression among employees who are birth mothers, an increased likelihood of infant vaccinations and wellness visits, and better employee productivity. A Great Place to Work survey showed that companies that offer generous paid parental leave and additional parental benefits reported higher rates of worker retention and engagement.
On the other hand, companies can learn from where national norms fall short. In 2018, the US ranked last for government-mandated family leave among 41 OECD countries with a total of zero mandated weeks, (far behind Estonia with 86 weeks, and South Korea with 40 weeks). Additionally, the Bureau of Labor and Statistics reported in 2019 that 82% of US private-sector employees lacked access to paid family leave outside of short-term disability. A survey from the same department a year prior found 93% of low-wage workers had no access to family leave, highlighting gaps that emerge in the absence of national guidance.
Reconsidering Parental Leave Policies
Now, with the backdrop of a global pandemic, working parents are looking to their employers for guidance, and companies have the opportunity to accelerate parental leave policies.
This starts with adopting a win-win mentality and recognizing that both parties want the same thing: security. Employees want to parent and work without losing career momentum or the respect of their employers, and leadership wants their best and brightest workers to come back empowered to continue their progress. Employers who adhere to strict working hours and cutthroat expectations will inevitably lose employees forced to decide between their families and careers, and costly employee turnover is more difficult to navigate than working with an employee to meet their needs. In other words, an ounce of effective parental leave policies now prevents a pound of employee turnover later.
Parental Leave as a Part of a Competitive Workplace
As the workforce becomes more global, providing greater opportunities and competition, companies can research, emulate, and align policies within their sector considering international norms. Over the past 25 years, companies have been reviewing and amending parental leave policies more frequently, and some companies have emerged as leaders when it comes to these benefits. Spotify, for example, provides six months of maternity or paternity leave to be used at any time. The company credits their Swedish heritage, emphasizing gender equality and time with family and friends, for this policy. Estée Lauder, a company whose American workforce is made up of 84% women, provides 20 weeks of maternal or paternal leave. According to Executive Director Latricia Parker, the company hopes to stay competitive when prospective employees look at benefits packages.
Adjusting Parental Leave Policies for Working Parents
Now is a great time for companies to listen to their employees’ changing needs to create new processes and policies that support working parents. Early on in the pandemic, Microsoft began offering employees up to 12 weeks of paid leave for parents to take care of children at home due to school and childcare center closures. Similarly, Google’s parent company, Alphabet, expanded flexible leave, and Netflix is paying for membership services to Care.com for employees to find backup childcare. Target and CVS have partnered with childcare centers to extend daycare benefits, in some cases waiving eligibility requirements and copays.
It may not be within some companies’ bandwidths to offer additional leave or subsidize services even on a smaller scale, so it comes down to flexibility and company culture. Here are some considerations for revisiting your company’s parental leave policy in response to the pandemic:
Engage with Parent Workers
While any advice is prescriptive, employers must engage with working parents about the landscape of your industry, negotiable and non-negotiable obligations of workers, and how local policies or lifestyle nuances can affect daily activities. Work together to identify solutions to unique problems rather than from the top down.
Have Patience for Parenting During Working Hours
Employers should allow for slow responses to emails as some parents supervise 2nd-grade math, troubleshoot computer problems while sending assignments to teachers, or work to schedule meetings around snack and nap times. Turning down a responsibility, coming across frazzled, or asking for an extension does not mean the employee is incapable or difficult. They’re working and parenting in a pandemic, learning in-the-moment how to reprioritize and reschedule, and going against nearly every piece of work-life advice they’d received before March 2020.
Offer Flexible Work Schedules or Part-Time Work
No matter how hard parents try to have designated work hours, having children at home interrupts that. Employers should be OK with calling an employee at 11:00 am and hearing a tantrum in the background, that they haven’t been able to start work yet, or that they can’t talk right now because they’re wrangling a toddler during a diaper change. If parents struggle with time management while working from home with children, ask if part-time work may be a solution to meet their needs.
Rethink Processes and Communication
Maybe your company sets deadlines two weeks in advance knowing that the bulk of the work will be done in silos in the two days leading up to the deadline. Working parents may need more support to schedule their time, especially when working on teams. Encourage company leaders to implement processes that are mindful of working parents, set mini-deadlines early, and model open communication throughout the process.
Consider PTO Teamwork
According to SHRM, leave donation programs that allow employees to donate paid time-off to their colleagues have increased productivity and retention of quality employees. HR departments can establish guidelines for a leave donation policy during COVID-19, especially for working parents, and re-evaluate the program as the pandemic deescalates.
Provide Resources for Success
You may find that simply notifying working parents of accurate information may be one of the best ways to help during this time and advance parental leave policies for the future. HR departments can help busy parents by providing information and tools to navigate the healthcare system, and staying on top of local education policies to plan long-term outlooks.
Explore Evolving Legislations
Local jurisdictions and states may have support regulations already in place or in the pipeline, including opportunities to partner with local childcare centers or guarantee sick leave for working parents. Colorado, for example, enacted a law earlier this year that requires employers to provide employees access to up to 80 hours of supplemental leave during a public health emergency.
Supporting Your Employees’ Experience
Parental leave policies are important, even more so during COVID, and enhancing policies at this time can help ease employee stress and assist employers with planning for future success. In addition to effective policies and patience, employers can also help their employees by telling working parents that they’re doing a great job. Reinforce positive behaviors and practices that work well. By exploring company culture and opening themselves up to change, companies will find they have the capabilities and the people to support parents during coronavirus and beyond.
At Barometer, we evaluate your employee experience by analyzing employer reviews from Glassdoor, Indeed, and internal surveys. To learn more about how you can support your employees and become a great place to work, click here!