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Wall Street, Techdom and the Hard Truth About Parental Leave

  • Percentage of companies offering leave almost doubled in 2015
  • An estimated 44% of U.S.workers still lack even unpaid leave

There’s never been a better time to have a baby at Facebook Inc. Or at Netflix Inc. Or Credit Suisse Group AG.

QuickTake Family Leave

But as those and other big-name corporations expand paid leave for new parents, millions of ordinary Americans face a hard truth: they get no parental leave at all.

Call it the baby gap. In most wealthy nations, getting time off to care for a new child is a given. But in the United States, generous parental leave -- indeed, any parental leave -- is reserved for a relative handful of employees. Just two in five U.S. companies offer paid maternity leave.

The question is whether the radical re-think underway at some marquee corporations will, in effect, trickle down. Even optimists say any change will come slowly.

Yet parental leave has rarely been as talked about as it is today. The issue hit the headlines in 2015 and became a hot new employee benefit from Wall Street to Silicon Valley. The escalating battle to lure and retain top performers in finance and technology is slowly changing how workaholic America views taking time to look after a new baby. Heck, even Mark Zuckerberg and Marissa Mayer did it.

“We’re trending toward new workplace norms, which is awesome,” said Karyn Twaronite, global diversity and inclusiveness officer at EY.

For a fortunate minority, those new norms are welcome news. Last year, the percentage of large corporations offering paid leave jumped to 21 percent from 12 percent the previous year -- a shift that would have been unthinkable a decade ago.

Yet Twaronite and others say many U.S. workers must still chose between having a child and having a paycheck.

“As a whole, the U.S. workforce still has a long way to go,” Twaronite says.

Fierce Competition

In the technology industry, where competition for talent is fierce, Netflix has been the most generous with leave. The company is offering paid time off for as long as a year. Adobe Systems Inc., Inc. and Microsoft Corp. have also increased benefits, as have Credit Suisse and Danone.

Netflix first offered the expanded benefit to salaried workers but then extended it to hourly workers after a public outcry. That underscores how leave is still a job differentiator, not a societal norm, said Ken Matos, senior director of research at the Families and Work Institute, a nonprofit research organization based in New York.

“My hope is that the more you have the elites embraces this as a norm for them, and not a perk, society starts having a conversation about it as a norm for a broader collection of people,” Matos says.

As corporations have brought parental leave to the fore, the issue has also become a topic for some U.S. presidential candidates. Several Democrats, including Hillary Clinton, the front-runner, as well Marco Rubio, a Republican contender, have expressed support for additional paid family leave. President Barack Obama has extended the benefit to federal employees, although congressional Republicans have resisted passing a law that would guarantee all Americans up to 12 weeks of paid leave at 66 percent of their regular income.

Adobe and Danone have expanded leave to 26 weeks in the U.S., while Microsoft and Credit Suisse went to 20 weeks. A group of companies that includes EY, Danone and KKR & Co. have said they will study the impact of their improvements to leave policy this year and make recommendations for other companies to follow.

CEO Twins

At Yahoo Inc., Mayer’s decision to return to work this month after giving birth to twins last month isn’t keeping other employees from taking all the leave they’re entitled to, says Carolyn Clark, a spokeswoman. Seventy-five percent of mothers who had babies last year took the full 16-week leave, while 38 percent of fathers took their full 8 weeks, Clark says. Margarita Louis-Dreyfus, the billionaire chairwoman of Louis Dreyfus Commodities BV, said this week she will also take leave after the birth of twins in early April.

Like technology companies, Credit Suisse has expanded its policy to counter growing competition from other employers, including many outside banking, said Elizabeth Donnelly, head of benefits for the Americas at the Swiss bank. Young employees, in particular, want jobs that offer a better work-life balance, and the bank needed to respond, she says.

“Flexibility is becoming the new buzz word, if you will, for the millennials,” Donnelly says.

Yet many companies with large hourly work forces still don’t offer paid parental leave. Under the U.S. Family Medical Leave Act, passed in 1993, companies with more than 50 employees have to allow employees 12 weeks of unpaid leave and protect their jobs. If the employee has been in the job less than a year or the company has fewer than 50 people, there is no such requirement. That leaves about 44 percent of workers without even unpaid leave. The U.S. is the only industrialized country that does not offer new parents paid leave.

Despite the recent publicity surrounding Mayer and Zuckerberg, workers down the ranks, especially at retail, fast food and many service companies, rarely get parental leave, says Ilene Lang, former president of Catalyst, the New York-based women’s research and advocacy organization.

State Moves

Washington, D.C.; Connecticut; and New York may bring the issue of paid family leave to a decision this year, joining California, New Jersey and Rhode Island in offering mandatory paid leave, said Ellen Bravo, director of the Family Values @ Work consortium, a network of state coalitions advocating for paid sick days and family leave for all workers. Massachusetts, Washington and Oregon are possible next year, she said.

Meantime, workers like Diana Limongi say they must chose between having a child and keeping a job. Limongi, a legal secretary in New York, says she’s is holding off having a second child, because her employer doesn’t provide parental leave.

“I can’t afford to have another child,” Limongi says.

(An earlier version of this story was corrected to fix the order of states that may consider adding paid parental leave requirements.)

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