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Balancing Act: Best Mother’s Day gift: Paid maternity leave

When Yalimar Panell gave birth to twin daughters, she felt sore from her Cesarean section, exhausted from running back and forth to the neonatal unit, and oddly grateful that her husband was unemployed and able to help.

Yet, if it wasn’t for her employer offering 16 weeks of paid parental leave, Panell says she would have been less grateful and more frantic about the financial stress on her family. She also would have returned sooner to her job as an online editor for an Internet portal. “It’s hard no matter what leaving a baby with someone else, but at least I can figure out how to manage my life and go back to work feeling more ready,” she says.

Mother’s Day is approaching and it’s a reminder that one of the most useful gifts a new mother can receive is paid maternity leave. The United States is the only industrialized country that doesn’t guarantee paid parental leave nationwide — but it has been moving toward changing that, and some local and state governments already have made that move.

But what has been most remarkable is the momentum from private companies to offer paid parental leave. In 2016 alone, more than a dozen notable employers have introduced paid parental leave or upped their existing offerings. Companies like Etsy, Bank of America, Ernst & Young and Twitter joined The Virgin Group, Microsoft, Amazon and others in previous announcements about giving their new parents significant paid time off.

Those changes followed Netflix’s announcement that it would begin offering one year of paid parental leave to salaried employees and 16 weeks to hourly workers. A number of other companies also have made promises of paid parental leave: Yahoo, Microsoft, Virgin Group, Adobe, Facebook and Spotify.

While generous paid parental leave is far from common in the United States, more companies now see value in it. According to SHRM’s 2015 Employer Benefits Survey, 21 percent of employers offered some type of paid maternity leave in 2015, while 17 percent offered paid paternity or adoption leave — a notable increase from 2014, when 12 percent of employers offered paid maternity, paternity, and adoption leave.

The incentive likely is dollars and cents. With the Bureau of Labor Statistics showing women are now nearly 50 percent of the total U.S. labor force, companies can’t afford to let their talented young women quit, and research shows giving paid parental leave pays off. The National Partnership for Women & Families, a Washington, D.C., nonprofit, looked at California, the first state to enact a paid family leave law, and found that first-time mothers who take paid leave are more likely than those who take unpaid leave or no leave to return to the same employer. Google has reported that when it extended paid maternity leave from 12 to 18 weeks, it halved the rate at which its new mothers were quitting, reducing the cost of finding and training new hires.

“Companies are jumping in not because it’s the right thing to do, but because it’s the smart thing to do,” says Seattle-based Kristin Rowe-Finkbeiner, CEO of MomsRising, a national grassroots organization that supports women and families. “Research shows they are increasing the bottom line by having this policy as well as using it to recruit highly sought after employees.”

Indeed, Panell, 34, says when she joined her company six years ago, maternity leave wasn’t a benefit that was at the top of her mind. Now, generous paid parental leave factors into why the new mother remains at her job: “I feel blessed to be at the company.”

Companies also understand the benefit of offering paid leave to fathers. Paternity leave encourages men to take time off to care for a newborn, helping shift the perception that child care or caregiving is solely women’s work. “If caregiving is spread more equally, we begin to break the wall in terms of wage and hiring discrimination,” Rowe-Finkbeiner says.

Indeed, a provocative new study of almost 22,000 companies in 91 countries by The Peterson Institute for International Economics and EY found that the places with the highest percentages of women in leadership, including in the boardroom and at the executive level, offered fathers 11 times more paternity leave days than those countries at the bottom.

In March, Bank of America saw value in equal leave for fathers and mothers. It announced it would make life easier for all new parents by extending maternity and paternity leave to 16 weeks from 12 weeks for its U.S. employees. “There is a cost, but there also is a cost of not supporting your employees, and it’s called turnover,” says Gene Schaefer, Miami market president for Bank of America. “We strive to be a great place to work. Supporting our employees when they have a life event is a reflection of that.”

After Jeanna Zamora gave birth to her first child, she returned to her job at Bank of America following eight weeks of paid leave, and she struggled with getting little sleep and coping with her newborn’s allergies to formula. Now nine years later, Zamora will go on maternity leave again, and this time, she will use the new benefit of 16 weeks of paid leave to assure her a better chance of balancing work and family: “I feel much more secure leaving a 4-month-old with a caregiver than I did a 2-month-old.”

The millennial generation also plays into why companies are behind paid parental leave. Millennials, the biggest generation in the workforce, have higher expectations for gender equality at home and accommodations from their employers. “We know this is important to millennials,” says EY Global Diversity & Inclusiveness Officer Karyn Twaronite, who is based in New York. The firm found its working parents are its most engaged segment of its U.S. workforce, which led to its decision to give all new parents 16 weeks of paid time off. “We realized it was an investment worth making.”

Meanwhile, local and state governments are starting to embrace paid leave, too. In 2004, California became the first state to enact a paid family leave law, which it funds through employee paycheck withholdings. Now states such as Rhode Island, New Jersey and Washington have passed similar laws for paid parental leave, as have San Francisco and a few other cities. Many believe a national law guaranteeing paid parental leave will be passed after the presidential election. “It’s not a matter of if, it’s a matter of when,” Rowe-Finkbeiner says.

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BY THE NUMBERS:

In the United States:

–88 percent of women are paid nothing in the weeks they take off after having a child.

–Nearly 1 in 4 new mothers were back at work within just two weeks of having a new baby, according to a new report from In These Times, a nonprofit magazine, which analyzed 2012 data from the Department of Labor

–Women are the breadwinners in nearly half of American households, usually as single mothers, and often in low-wage labor. And 65 percent of couples are dual earners, meaning both partners work and financially contribute to the household.

–Paid parental leave can reduce infant mortality by as much as 10 percent, according to a 2011 study of 141 countries with paid leave policies.

–Paid parental leave can also increase the rate and duration of breast-feeding. A 2011 study in California found that women who had paid leave breast-fed twice as long as women who did not take leave.

–In one study, women who took longer than 12 weeks maternity leave reported fewer depressive symptoms, a reduction in severe depression and improvement in their overall mental health.

–A 2012 report from the U.S. Department of Labor on family and medical leave found about 15 percent of people who were not paid or who received partial pay while on leave turned to public assistance for help.

–Women who report taking paid leave are more likely to be working 9 to 12 months after a child’s birth than those who report taking no leave at all. When that leave isn’t available, women are more likely to leave the workforce entirely, according to the National Partnership for Women & Families.

–In 2015, EY conducted an online survey of 1,200 full-time U.S. workers and found 38 percent of millennials says they would “move to another country with better parental leave benefits.”

–Source: U.S. Census Bureau

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ABOUT THE WRITER

Cindy Krischer Goodman is CEO of BalanceGal LLC, a provider of news and advice on how to balance work and life. She can be reached at balancegal//worklifebalancingact.com/.

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©2016 Miami Herald

Visit Miami Herald at www.miamiherald.com

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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