It’s Time to Raise the Bar on Parental Leave in the U.S.

Susan Spilka, Strategic Communications, PR, Internal Comms, Marketing, and Business Development Consultant/Advisor | November 27, 2019

There isn’t a magic formula for transforming scholarly publishing workplaces to make them more diverse, inclusive, and equitable. But it’s a no brainer for companies to address obvious disparities.

The Scholarly Publishing Status Quo – With global collaboration the norm, one gap that stands out like a sore thumb is how the industry treats new parents in the U.S. Most scholarly publishing companies and organizations offer U.S.-based employees a greatly abbreviated benefit compared to what they offer staff in other countries.

This is largely because there is no federal mandate for paid leave, and state requirements (while changing) are inconsistent — and none come anywhere close to what was required in 2016 by Germany (58 weeks), Japan (58 weeks), Canada (52 weeks), France (42 weeks), and the UK (39 weeks), all countries where our industry is active. The Workplace Equity Survey data highlighted these geographic disparities. For example, 30% fewer North Americans were able to take at least 12-week long parental leaves than Northern Europeans (54% of whom took 6-12 months off, compared to only 8% in North America). The picture these data paint is more positive than the U.S. reality because the WE Survey’s North American segment includes Canada, where new parents are entitled to a year’s leave.

What Does the Research Show? – The benefits of paid parental leave are well established anecdotally and in research literature. Time off, especially if it shared or divided between the two parents, results in better health (fewer hospitalizations and antibiotics) for the baby and birthing parent, lowered anxiety, and improved bonding. It’s not just the families who gain – companies that offer paid family and medical leave enjoy higher productivity, lower turnover and absenteeism, better morale, and a stronger bottom line. One example: when Google increased maternity leave from 12 weeks to 18 weeks, quit rates among new mothers decreased 50%. The evidence is clear: paid parental leave delivers a myriad of benefits to workers, businesses, and national economies.

Overall Leave  – In the U.S., the only national benefit is the Family Medical Leave Act, which was passed in 1993 (revised in 2015) to guarantee that employees retain their jobs during 12 weeks of unpaid leave to care for themselves and/or family members, under certain circumstances. Despite the FMLA, alarming data from the CDC’s National Center for Health Statistics report that a quarter of new moms take less than a month off. Only half of them take five+ weeks, and a quarter take nine+ weeks. The average maternity leave in the U.S. lasts 10 weeks, a far cry below the FMLA’s 12-week entitlement, the 14 weeks recommended by the World Health Organization, and the 16 weeks recommended by the New America Foundation.

More disturbing is that much of it is unpaid. The U.S. is one of five countries worldwide (and the only industrialized nation) that does not require companies to provide paid parental leave. Out of 173 countries studied, 168 countries have mandated leave with income to women in connection with childbirth; 98 of these countries offer 14 or more weeks paid leave. Sixty-six countries ensure that fathers have a right to paid parental leave and 31 of them offer them at least 14 weeks. No surprise, but the U.S. does not guarantee fathers any paid parental benefit and the result is that few new fathers take leave.

Because the U.S. does not mandate any wage replacement during parental leave, the majority of new parents are left to self-fund some or all of their time off. Most can count on limited short-term disability pay, which provides the birthing parent with 6 weeks partial wage replacement to cover their physical recovery (2 weeks more for a C-section). The other common source of income during parental leave is accrued PTO. This benefit is limited since the availability and rules are up to individual companies.  According to a national survey of employers conducted by the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), only 16% of private-industry employees had access to paid family leave (separate from other leave categories) through their employer in March 2018.

There are a host of other related issues that must also be addressed, but I’ll park them for today other than flagging a few of them: how leave time taken affects future compensation and contributes to the gender pay gap, insurance/benefits coverage after the FMLA period ends, and workplace flexibility after leave to balance demands.

Paid Leave – To document the situation in the U.S. scholarly publishing industry, earlier this year I put out an informal call for information on leave policies via SSP’s C3 online community. Colleagues from eight organizations responded, including four nonprofit publishers, one large commercial publisher, one university press, and two publishing services companies. More than half of them did not offer more than what was statutorily required (combined FMLA and STD), while a few offered supplements of full or partial wages for anywhere from 4-13 weeks. I was pleased to see that two had recently enhanced their offering. As this was an informal query, I cannot vouch that it is broadly representative, but it appears to reflect overall trends.

With no U.S. government mandate, the question is, “why should any company do more than they have to?” To gain some perspective, I propose we look to Silicon Valley, where they are paying attention to the rest of the world AND the research that we publish. Netflix is offering new parents 52 weeks, Microsoft and Airbnb, 22 weeks, Twitter and Amazon, 20 weeks, to name a few. Don’t forget: those are the folks who disrupted and transformed publishing. We better pay attention if we want to remain competitive.

Making it Personal – My own experience bears testimony to what the research demonstrates. Twenty-seven years ago, when my daughter was born, I was working as a marketing manager for a government agency and was able to use 100 days of unused sick leave, accrued over nine years, to cover my maternity leave. Because of my 20-week paid leave, I was able to help my child recover from a birth accident (and pay the hefty co-insurance for six days in a neonatal ICU), bond with her without distraction and financial stress, regain my energy, and arrange for care for when I went back to work. Later, when I accepted a position at a scholarly publisher, my new boss (also a mother) permitted me work remotely one day a week — as long as I wasn’t primary caregiver during working hours. I understood her rationale, happily complied, and worked much harder and more efficiently than I ever had before.

Managing through parental leave is very challenging for companies and teams. I know from experience — it wasn’t easy when I managed a group of young professionals through our own baby boom. The new moms were back at work before their babies were sleeping through the night, but it still put a lot on the rest of us to carry their loads while they were at home and then when they were transitioning back to work. There was a silver lining, however; our team grew stronger and more collaborative as a result of having each others’ backs. On the other hand, I’ll never forget being told to turn down one direct report’s request for flex-time during her transition back from parental leave (otherwise sanctioned by the company with managerial approval), suggesting I ask her whether she was on “a career track or a mommy track.” No one should have to have conversations like that one.

Call to Action – Over the past decade there has been a massive generational shift in our industry, along with its digital transformation. Most of the workforce is in “the rush hour of life,” the period when professional and family demands too often collide. Raising the bar on paid parental leave in the U.S. — to begin to catch up with the rest of the world — makes good business sense, and it’s the right thing to do. Let’s call upon our companies and organizations to step up to this challenge.