Copyright © 2019 Albuquerque Journal
Amanda Sutton had a three-month paid maternity leave before she returned to her position as a marketing and events manager. Now her youngest child often accompanies her to the office, and she works remotely from home three days a week. On the day Sutton spoke with a reporter over the phone at work, the sounds of her 11-month-old daughter, Amalia, could be heard in the background.
“I’m a single mom, so it’s pretty crucial to me to be able to have a job that is flexible around my family life,” said Sutton, who also has a 12-year-old son who visits her workplace frequently. “It’s been great to continue work at a job I really love. Really, it’s been a godsend.”
Sutton doesn’t work for a national corporation with extensive resources. She is employed at Bookworks, the independent bookstore on Rio Grande NW. The store is one of many New Mexico businesses that have implemented family-friendly policies in recent years.
As more organizations consider adding such policies – the University of New Mexico, one of the Albuquerque area’s largest employers, announced earlier this month that it is drafting a paid parental leave policy – company leaders often wonder whether the benefits will outweigh the costs.
Giovanna Rossi, founder and director of the nonprofit Family Friendly New Mexico, said the policies don’t need to be expensive to be effective.
“Regardless of the size of your business, there are creative solutions we can help you find,” Rossi said. “It is affordable because you end up with a loyal, more reliable workforce. The money you invest, you make up in higher productivity and profits.”
Investing in the workforce
Nearly a decade ago in the aftermath of the Great Recession, the New Mexico State Legislature created the Task Force on Work Life Balance after a study found that only 66.5 percent of full-time employees within the state had employers that offered paid maternity leave. According to lawmakers at the time, the issue had significant economic and health consequences.
“When individuals, families and communities are not economically secure, negative health outcomes result that affect women and their families, particularly women and families of color,” lawmakers wrote in the memorial.
The task force in turn gave rise to Family Friendly New Mexico, which has recognized 194 businesses since 2015 with awards for their family-friendly policies. While debate still rages here about whether organizations should be required to offer certain benefits to their employees, Rossi said business owners have embraced the award program.
“We’ve heard from several businesses that when they go through the process of applying for the award, it gives them ideas for other things they can do,” Rossi said. “The whole thing is really meant to be a resource for businesses in New Mexico.”
Businesses apply for the award for free on the Family Friendly New Mexico website (www.nmfamilyfriendlybusiness.com) and are immediately informed via email if they’ve received a bronze, silver or gold award. The website also contains toolkits and fact sheets that explain the estimated return on investment for various policies and how to implement them.
Those policies go far beyond maternity leave. The site discusses other categories of paid leave like those for fathers and individuals caring for a sick parent; health support, including wellness programs and health insurance; work schedule-related policies like job sharing and telecommuting; and economic support, including retirement plans and subsidized child care.
Rossi said she is constantly surprised by the innovative ways companies here are implementing such policies. At the T-Mobile call center on Jefferson NE, for example, the company created a large, private maternity room with plush chairs, curtained-off areas for pumping breast milk and refrigerators for milk storage.
“We have between 700 and 750 employees (at the Jefferson site), so every year there’s a couple people who are having babies,” said Amanda Armenta, senior manager and employee success partner at T-Mobile. “We have an admin who had an eye for decorating, and she really made it comfortable.”
T-Mobile also has a call center on Menaul with a similar room. The company has about 1600 employees total in Albuquerque.
Among the other family-friendly policies the company has in place: paid parental leave, nursing mother parking, a child care subsidy and back-up child care, and health insurance that covers various autism services, according to Armenta.
“It’s not as cost-prohibitive as people assume,” Armenta said. “It’s an investment in the workforce.”
In February of 2018, Del Esparza, president of Albuquerque-based advertising agency Esparza, decided it was time to address a problem. The 16-employee company had experienced employee turnover the year prior, so Esparza sent out an anonymous survey asking his workforce what the business was doing well and what it wasn’t.
After receiving feedback that was a mix of positive comments and things that were “hard to hear” for Esparza, the company rolled out a new policy: unlimited paid time off. Employees are allowed to take as many sick or vacation days as they desire, so long as they work with their immediate supervisor and peers to ensure the business functions as usual. It doesn’t impact the company’s paid parental leave benefit, which is a separate policy.
“So often CEOs just assume people want more money, but what you find more and more in the younger generation is the desire for flexibility, be it working from home or something else,” Esparza said.
The company hasn’t had any turnover since it implemented the new policy. Asked if anyone has abused the benefit, Esparza said the situation is the opposite: employees have to be encouraged to take time off when they are sick, because they are reluctant to place the burden of extra work on their coworkers.
Like Esparza, Albuquerque-based Nusenda Credit Union created a new family-friendly policy based on the results of an employee satisfaction survey. After learning in 2017 that employees wanted a paid parental leave benefit that didn’t eat into their existing paid time off, the company spent much of 2018 trying to figure out how to affordably offer the policy to nearly all of 525 employees, part-time and full-time.
Michelle Dearholt, Nusenda’s chief retail and performance officer, said she’s proud of the company’s “creative” solution: decreasing the waiting period for when new employees can use a short-term disability program, with the company paying the difference between the disability payments and the employee’s normal wages. Now, both parents receive two weeks of “paid bonding time” with their new child, and the birth mother receives an additional six weeks of paid time.
“We have about 25 to 30 employees a year who have a child, and we estimate the cost of training a new employee starts at $5,000,” Dearholt said. If every one of those employees decided not to return to work after the birth of their child, the company would lose a minimum of $125,000 on training alone.
Dearholt said some employees are choosing flexibility within the new leave policy. One father chose to take a week off when his child was born, and is saving the other week for a few months in the future. Giving parents that type of choice is what the policy is all about, Dearholt said.
Back at Bookworks, co-owner Danielle Foster recalls what happened when she worked for a corporate bookstore several years ago. She had to quit when she became pregnant, because the store offered no flexibility when it came to her schedule. She later became a single mother, and though she has a partner now, she said she remembers what it was like to struggle in that situation. She describes providing employees like Sutton with family-friendly policies “a real personal decision.”
Bookworks also covers all medical costs – 100 percent of them – for its full-time employees. Though the store has gone through “some rough times,” Foster said she hopes she will never have to compromise on any of those family-friendly policies. The loyalty of her employees, she said, is worth it.
“We don’t have a lot of turnover,” Foster said. “I remember when I worked in San Francisco, it didn’t seem like a day went by that I wasn’t interviewing someone for something.”