A trending workplace issue — paid leave for parents of newborns — could soon become a legal mandate for employers. This article summarizes activity at the state level, what’s going on at the federal level, and what employers should do as they observe the debate over parental leave.
Parental Leave Is Critical, More Studies Say
A growing number of studies indicates the institution (and enhancement) of both paid and unpaid parental leave programs are considered a “best practice” among employers and a critical component of a family-friendly workplace policy.
Many recent findings stress a sea change in the traditional household role of fathers and mothers, with today’s dads much more involved in the actual rearing of their children. For example, they may rely on partial days off so that they can attend a child’s medical appointment or afterschool activity without the fear of retaliation or demotion.
For parents of newborns, early, adequate leave “can have positive effects for gender equality in the home and at work and may indicate shifts in relationships and perceptions of parenting roles and prevailing stereotypes,” according to an International Labour Organization policy brief, Maternity and Paternity at Work.
State Paid Family Leave Programs
Family-friendly policies — such as paid sick days and family leave insurance — have a positive impact on the bottom line, says Ellen Bravo, executive director of Family Values @ Work, who testified in May at the U.S. Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Hearing on Economic Security for Women.
For example, Bravo cites a recent Rutgers study that shows New Jersey’s family leave insurance program has saved businesses money by improving employee retention, decreasing turnover costs and improving productivity.
New Jersey is one of three states to pass such a measure. In 2004, California became the first state to attempt to make family leave affordable by expanding the state’s existing temporary disability insurance program. As of 2013, those needing family leave in California may take up to six weeks at 55 percent of their pay with a cap of $533 a week.
New Jersey implemented a paid family leave program in 2009, with benefits for about two‐thirds of the last eight weeks of pay, with a cap of $584 a week for up to six weeks.
Last year, Rhode Island became the third state to pass such a measure. Together these three states have brought access to family leave insurance programs to more than 17 million people, says Bravo.
Washington is expecting to have funding to implement its paid family leave program next year. Other states with active bills and study commissions laying the groundwork for legislation include New York, Vermont, Connecticut and Colorado.
“The State Paid Leave Fund, $5 million in the [U.S.] Department of Labor budget, would be a significant boost to these programs,” says Bravo.
State Parental Leave Laws
When it comes to the birth or adoption of a child, many employers understand the entitlements and protections the Family and Medical Leave Act afford employees.
As challenging as FMLA compliance may seem, things get even more complicated for employers that operate in states with leave laws that protect the rights of parents to at least occasionally attend school-sponsored functions without the risk of losing their jobs.
California, unsurprisingly, is the most generous of the 10 states that have parental leave laws as it requires private employers with 50 or more employees and all public sector employees to allow their employees up to 40 hours per year of leave — with no more than eight hours per month — to participate in their children’s educational activities.
Under the Small Necessities Leave Act, Massachusetts employers with 50 or more employees must allow up to 24 hours of leave per year for parents to participate in children’s educational activities or accompany a child, spouse or elderly relative to routine medical appointments.
In addition to the 12 weeks of job-protected leave provided for the birth or adoption of a child (and/or illness of a family member or employee’s own serious health condition), Vermont requires all employers with 15 or more employees to offer an additional 24 hours of leave in 12 months — with no more than four hours granted in any 30-day period — to attend to the routine or emergency medical needs of a child, spouse, parent or parent-in-law or to participate in children’s educational activities.
Washington, D.C., also allows employees who are parents up to 24 hours per year to participate in children’s educational activities, while Minnesota shows its support of parental leave rights by requiring all employers to allow their employees up to 16 hours per year.
Rhode Island’s parental leave law — up to 10 hours of leave per year for full-time employees to participate in their children’s school activities — covers private employers with 50 or more employees, all state government employers and local governments with 30 or more employees.
Parental Leave-only States
Even a few states without (or with very limited) state-specific family and medical leave laws — such as Illinois, Louisiana, Nevada and North Carolina — have enacted state laws that protect the rights of parents to attend school functions and otherwise get involved with their children’s education during regular business hours.
Louisiana requires all employers to grant their employees up to 16 hours of accrued leave per year “at the employer’s discretion” for parental participation in educational activities.
Illinois offers up to eight hours per school year, but no more than four hours on any day, to attend a child’s school activities, and only when no other type of employee leave is available.
The Nevada Small Necessities Law prohibits large employers from firing or threatening to fire an employee for attending parent-teacher conferences, school activities during school hours or school-sponsored events. Nevada employers with at least 50 employees must allow eligible employees to take up to four hours off per school year for school-related volunteer work, and may not terminate an employee for receiving notification of a child’s emergency during work hours.
North Carolina too offers any employee who is a parent, guardian or person standing in loco parentis of a school-aged child up to four hours per year to participate in their child’s education.
Continue to Watch
With all the publicity, the state action and push for better leave protections at the federal level, employers may want to get an early start on assessing their attendance policies before the feds intervene through new compliance mandates.