Diversity & Inclusion

Employees Purring over ‘Pawternity Leave’ and Other Pet-Supportive Benefits

As the next generation of professionals enters the workplace and the job market tightens, employers are rolling out new benefits and finding more creative ways to attract and retain employees. Things like “pawternity leave” are gaining traction. Implementing new pet-supportive benefits in this uncharted territory requires careful consideration.

‘For Many Employees, Pets Are Their Family Members’

Increasingly, employees are forgoing starting families altogether or at least bringing home a “starter” pet first. Some might argue puppies need even more attention than a newborn in the first few weeks. If you’ve ever seen a couch that looks like it was hit by an atomic bomb but was actually destroyed by an unsupervised puppy, you might agree. Not to mention persistent (and irrational) barking throughout the night and trying to potty train an eight-week-old puppy (a feat not expected of newborn babies).

“Pawternity leave” allows employees to take paid or unpaid time off to care for a new puppy/kitten or adopted dog/cat. It gives them a chance to focus on acclimating the new pet to their home and for the addition to learn what is expected. This often entails lost sleep, veterinarian appointments, and trips home during the workday for potty breaks. Employees may be less productive and on task during the first few “ruff” weeks of adjustment anyway, and being able to devote more attention to the acclimating pet can expedite the process.

For many employees, pets are their family members—especially those who opt for furry friends over human babies. So, they could feel a twinge of resentment after covering for colleagues on paternity leave, knowing no similar benefits (even on a lesser scale) are provided to care for Fido or Felicia the feline.

4 Steps to Create Pawternity Leave Policy

Instituting pawternity leave as a benefit takes some advance planning and requires a written policy to outline the parameters. Here are four steps to follow.

Decide what counts as a “pet.” Most pawternity leave policies apply to cats and dogs, the most common household pets. Plus, cats and dogs typically need more time to adjust than, say, a hamster or fish. Although dog owners and cat owners aren’t members of a protected class, the policy should apply equally to both to avoid conflicts between “dog people” and “cat people.” In other words, if you grant one week of unpaid leave to care for a new puppy, you should do the same for a new kitten.

Typically, the same benefits for a new puppy or kitten owner are available for those who have adopted an adult dog or cat. The need for leave, however, is often greater for owners of younger pets, who usually need more frequent potty breaks or can’t yet be trusted home alone with furniture and other valuables. (Despite diligent puppy-proofing of the residence, no new pet owner is fully “initiated” until her first shoe has been destroyed.) Offering the same benefits regardless of the pet’s age may be easier from a practical standpoint because discerning between the two could be a hassle. After all, imagine requesting a puppy’s vet record or adoption certificate to verify the pet’s age!

Also, consider whether to make pawternity leave applicable to other pets. For example, although they’re less common, miniature horses can be service animals. While you are under no obligation to institute the leave policy in that situation, keep in mind that animals other than cats and dogs could warrant a brief absence from the workplace during an acclimation period. Since there are no legal mandates, “pet” could mean:

  • Virtually any pet so that all owners receive the benefit;
  • Any fur-bearing household pet (i.e., not a fish); or
  • Any puppy/dog or kitten/cat (you could note that other requests may be considered on a case-by-case basis depending on special needs).

Settle on the duration of leave. The second step is to decide how much leave time is appropriate and whether it should be paid or unpaid. Of course, there are limits to reducing an exempt employee’s salary under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA). Also, consider whether the absence will be permitted for a continuous period (which might require consistent coverage by another employee) or whether a certain number of intermittent absences are OK within a given time frame (which could mean shorter periods of disruption). Alternatively, consider whether you will allow flextime in lieu of a leave of absence. For example, during a specific period, the employee could (1) arrive early and work late in exchange for taking a longer midday break to care for the pet or (2) divide a normal one-hour lunch into shorter breaks at different times.

Consider limiting total number of leaves. The third step is to consider whether to limit the number of pawternity leaves that may be granted within a given period. For instance, employees could be limited to requesting up to two one-week leaves of absence in a 12-month period. Frequency may be less of a problem for those in urban areas, which are less conducive to having multiple pets. Consider whether the benefit is limited to employees whose new pet is a permanent addition to the family as opposed to those who volunteer with a pet rescue organization and frequently provide a foster home for the animals.

Define which employees are eligible. Consider whether only nonexempt employees or perhaps only employees in certain departments or locations will be eligible. Decide whether they will need to be employed for some duration, such as 90 days or one year, before becoming eligible to take the leave.

Leaves of Absence for other Pet-Related Reasons

Employers also might consider whether to grant similar leaves of absence for other pet-related reasons. For instance, an employee may need to divert attention to a pet that becomes ill and needs constant monitoring and/or frequent veterinarian visits. Or an employee may need time to grieve after the death of a beloved pet. According to Psychology Today, it isn’t uncommon for people to experience just as much (or more) difficulty coping with the loss of a pet as the death of a family member. Employees may need time to heal and resume a sense of normalcy.

Group Health Insurance and other Benefits

Many pet owners already have pet insurance coverage to avoid the financial strain of unexpected veterinarian bills, but the fact that several companies now offer group pet insurance for workplaces indicates there is a growing desire for employers to add it to their benefits offerings. The availability of pet insurance could prevent employees from having to change jobs or take a second job to pay for expensive veterinarian care.

While it’s not practical in every workplace, some employers offer “bring your pet to work” days as a benefit. For instance, employees may be more willing to work on a Saturday if they can bring their well-mannered pets with them. Alternatively, participating in the annual “Take Your Dog to Work Day” (which takes place in late June) would provide a once-a-year perk and allow the employer to consider whether to designate additional “pet-friendly” days.

Some coordination and planning is required. Employees with allergies or aversions to certain pets may not appreciate having four-legged office mates, and Fido’s presence could “paws” productivity and distract others. Accordingly, you should communicate in advance that certain types of pets will be permitted on designated days, provided there is minimal disruption to work operations. Also be clear whether dogs will need to be leashed or limited to certain areas. Note: Requests to bring service or emotional support animals to work as an accommodation under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) require additional consideration as part of the interactive process.

Bottom Line

In an increasingly tight labor market, employers are offering new benefits to attract more employees, including pet-supportive perks like paid time off for new pet owners, pet bereavement leave, “bring your pet to work day,” pet-friendly workplaces, and group pet health insurance, among others. The benefits could be tiebreakers for animal-loving jobseekers weighing competing offers and increase employee engagement and retention. They may not be suitable in every workplace but are gaining popularity. Because the benefits are in uncharted territory, give careful consideration to defining and implementing them.

If you have questions about workplace policies or another employment concern, contact the author at angela.johnson@faegrebd.com or any of Faegre Baker Daniels’ labor and employment attorneys.