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America should follow Silicon Valley's lead on paid parental leave

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and his wife, Priscilla Chan.
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and his wife, Priscilla Chan.
Pool/Getty Images

Tech companies are helping to lead the way on paid parental leave in America — but they're also highlighting just how inadequate paid leave policies are for Americans who don't work in Silicon Valley.

Spotify recently announced that it will offer an incredibly generous package for new parents — six months off at 100 percent pay for both mothers and fathers (same-sex couples included), with the option to split up that time over the first three years of the child's life.

And Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg decided to take two months of paternity leave when his infant daughter arrived — hopefully setting an example to his employees that it's okay to actually use their four months of paid parental leave.

Amazon now offers 20 weeks of paid leave to birth mothers and six weeks of paid leave to other new parents (like fathers, LGBTQ partners who don't give birth, or adoptive parents). Amazon was arguably trying to compete with Netflix, which now offers its employees "unlimited" paid maternity and paternity leave of up to one year.

While Amazon's plan is a bit less generous than Spotify's for mothers, and a lot less generous for fathers, it does break new ground in other ways. It introduced the concept of "leave share," which allows Amazon employees to share their paid parental leave with a spouse who doesn't have paid leave through an employer. And for the first time, 100,000 Amazon warehouse and customer service workers who work full time but aren't salaried have access to paid leave.

All of these policies are generous and innovative, and recognize how important it is for fathers, not just mothers, to take leave. But they also highlight some major structural inequalities in America, the only industrialized nation with no national paid maternity leave policy.

America is way behind other countries on paid parental leave — and low-income workers have it the hardest

No paid leave in the USA Credit: UCLA World Policy Analysis Centre

"Compared to what the rest of the world does, we're definitely backward," said paid leave advocate Ellen Bravo, executive director of Family Values @ Work. "We're the outlier."

Spotify took the inspiration for its paid leave policy from Sweden, where the company was founded. "This policy best defines who we are as a company, born out of a Swedish culture that places an emphasis on a healthy work/family balance, gender equality and the ability for every parent to spend quality time with the people that matter most in their lives," said chief human resources officer Katarina Berg in a statement.

But while the six months of maternity leave that Spotify offers is incredibly generous for the United States, it still pales in comparison with the 480 days that Swedish parents can take until their child is 8 years old. And it's actually a low bar compared with what other developed nations offer: 35 weeks in Canada, 44 weeks in Germany, 70 weeks in Norway. Even Saudi Arabia offers 10 weeks of paid maternity leave, which is a lot more than the zero weeks Americans get unless they work for a generous employer.

Working Mother magazine ranks the best 100 companies to work for based on their policies on paid maternity leave and flextime, as well as how many women they hire. Most of the companies on the list are in technology, financial services, health care, or professional services — all white-collar industries that tend to pay well. Lower-paying industries like hospitality and food service are decidedly less represented.

In America, only 12 percent of workers have access to paid family leave through their employer, and that access is unequally distributed. Only 5 percent of workers in the lowest-paid 25 percent of the workforce have employer-sponsored paid leave, while 22 percent of the top 10 percent of earners do. These figures don't count policies like short-term disability or sick leave, which many new parents use to cobble together a sort of ad hoc parental leave.

Many employers don't provide unpaid leave, either. There is a federal law called the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) that protects your job for up to 12 weeks — unpaid — if you take time off for a new child or another serious family or medical issue. But 40 percent of American workers don't qualify for those benefits, either because they haven't been at their job long enough or because their company is too small (the FMLA regulations only apply to companies with 50 or more workers).

Tech companies shouldn't be responsible for filling in the gaps in America's safety net

family Credit: Shutterstock

Even among those who do qualify for FMLA, many can't afford to spend three months without drawing a paycheck. Amazon's "leave share" policy offers one way to help those people, but of course it can't do anything for the people who don't even qualify for FMLA.

Lacking paid leave puts a huge burden on new parents. It hurts women's overall ability to participate in the workforce, prevents fathers from being equal partners in child rearing, and has devastating effects on women's health and ability to parent.

A recent investigation by In These Times found that one in four working mothers goes back to work within two weeks of childbirth, usually due to financial pressures. But going back to work so soon can have nightmarish consequences for a mother's physical and mental health. Women report going back to work still bleeding from vaginal injuries or C-sections. They work 12-hour days and can't breastfeed their new baby, either because they're too stressed or because they simply don't have time. They plunge into postpartum depression, and they despair of establishing a healthy parenting routine.

Tech companies are doing a good thing by trying to fill a major gap in the safety net for its workers and their families. But it shouldn't be Silicon Valley's job to do this. And you shouldn't have to work at Amazon or Spotify, or be married to someone who does, to be able to take the time you need to care for your family.

The Family Values @ Work coalition has led a major grassroots push for paid family and sick leave at the state and local level, and that campaign has had a lot of success in a short time. But the vast majority of the country still has no universal paid leave guarantees at all, much less benefits that compare to Silicon Valley or to the rest of the developed world.

The national public policy answer to this problem could look something like the Family and Medical Insurance Leave Act (FAMILY Act), introduced in Congress by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) and Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-CT). It's similar to paid leave insurance programs in states like California, Rhode Island, and New Jersey. It minimizes the burden on employers by levying a tiny (.02 percent) payroll tax on everyone, and it guarantees 12 weeks of leave at two-thirds pay for everyone who works.

But the FAMILY Act is going nowhere in a Republican-dominated Congress, despite the success of similar programs at the state level and the overwhelming evidence that they didn't harm businesses or kill jobs.

The paid leave problem is also cultural

Business Leaders Converge In Sun Valley, Idaho For Allen And Company Annual Meeting
Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg.
Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images

However generous paid leave benefits are, whether employees actually use those benefits will depend a lot on the culture they work in and the social pressures they face.

Amazon, for instance, is "notorious for its competitive work environment, and simply having access to leave may not be enough if workers feel they will be penalized in their careers for taking it," said Amy Traub, a senior policy analyst at Demos.

This is doubly true for fathers, who are especially unlikely to take leave no matter where they work. Yet research indicates that when fathers are more involved in child rearing and parenting decisions, it improves health outcomes for mothers and children, helps kids do better in school, and promotes more equitable gender norms, which in turn reduces domestic violence and helps women earn more.

Mark Zuckerberg mentioned this kind of research when he announced his decision to take two months of paternity leave, and he also mentioned Facebook's four months of paid leave for employees. In doing this, Zuckerberg appears to be leading by example and showing his employees that it's acceptable for men as well as women to take an extended leave from work to care for a new child. That could be a big deal culturally — especially because the more we normalize men taking paternity leave, the more it helps counteract the potential workforce backlash against women who take maternity leave.

It's clear that Silicon Valley is starting to wake up to the fact that paid parental leave isn't just good for new parents — it's also good for business. YouTube CEO Susan Wojcicki argued in an op-ed that paid maternity leave has helped Google's bottom line. The rate at which new moms left Google fell by 50 percent after the company increased paid maternity leave to 18 weeks from 12, she said.

Spotify is embracing its family-friendly Scandinavian roots, and the company even coordinated its announcement with the White House as part of its #LeadOnLeave campaign to shame Congress into actually doing something about paid family leave. This, of course, is a sobering reminder of how far we have to go before ordinary Americans who don't work for one of the world's hottest technology companies also get the time they need to spend building their new families.

"Company policies go a long way in influencing culture, and it’s great that some companies are leading the way on this issue," said Ellen Bravo of Family Values @ Work. "However, these companies remain a small minority. We need a universal social insurance fund like the FAMILY Act so that every working American can both provide and care for their families."

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