Benefits, Q&A

Paid Family Leave: Evolving Rapidly in the U.S.

Paid family leave has become an important issue in the U.S. for both employees and employers. Recently I spoke with Breanna Scott, Director of Product & Service Management at The Standard to discuss paid family leave trends in 2019.

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HR Daily Advisor: What is the current state of paid family leave?

Breanna Scott: While the United States continues to be only one of three countries without paid maternity leave, there could be some movement in the next few years on this topic. The FAMILY Act, which was originally proposed in 2017 and would have provided 12 weeks of paid leave for family and personal medical needs, is being reintroduced in Congress in the coming weeks.

In addition, there are a few states—including Washington and Massachusetts—that will have new state-mandated policies implemented in 2020 and 2021, respectively. In addition, as of January 1, 2019, 21 states have had a version of a paid family and medical leave bill introduced in either chamber of their state legislature. Some states even have competing bills introduced in both chambers. One or two additional states may propose bills in this legislative cycle, but that has yet to be seen.

HR Daily Advisor: I know that changes to paid family leave are happening in several states. Are these changes positive?

Breanna Scott: States that already have paid family leave programs in place, including New York and California, are proposing some expansions of their in-force programs, which may extend the duration of benefits, the amount of benefits received, or the definitions of family members you can take leave for. It would be premature to speculate at this time what may be likely to pass and how positive these changes may be for their respective states.

Washington is proposing some amendments to its statute language as it is going through its rulemaking process in order to clarify some items in its statute, and hopefully, these changes will also streamline some processes for employers. Thus far, it would appear these changes may be positive, but again, there may be more additions, and it’s a bit early to speculate on the final outcome.

HR Daily Advisor: Is there a state that has a policy that lawmakers from other states should emulate?

Breanna Scott: It’s tricky to recommend a specific state model to look to right now. States are making inroads to develop rich benefits that employees value, but there’s not a single model out there yet that appears to be the “silver bullet” offering. Every state that has put forward legislation has worked to evaluate the needs of workers in their state, as well as the state structure that would be needed to support these programs and what funding would be necessary to support the models they are proposing.

States are taking input from employers, though. Companies are working directly with state legislators, as well as through their trade associations, to provide education and firsthand accounts of what’s working for them.

HR Daily Advisor: How will paid family leave figure politically as the next election nears?

Breanna Scott: As the 2020 election nears, paid family leave will most likely be incorporated into some candidates’ overall platforms. Some candidates who have already thrown their hat into the ring for 2020 have been strong proponents of previous legislation—like the FAMILY Act. These programs will continue to become part of the larger national discussion around the need for greater social safety nets and stronger worker protections and benefits.

HR Daily Advisor: Are employers waiting for laws to come into place before they create their own paid family leave policies?

Breanna Scott: Employers—especially those that feel that paid family leave benefits will attract and retain talent—are not waiting for legislation to come into play. Instead, many are developing their own employer-sponsored policies that align with their corporate values.

A few companies are leading the charge in this arena, including organizations like Microsoft. For example, Microsoft has implemented a policy that requires vendors to offer their employees a minimum of 12 weeks’ paid parental leave, up to $1,000 per week.[1] This move shows other companies that paid family leave is important and how their employee benefits could leave them out of future opportunities with industry-leading organizations.

HR Daily Advisor: What will new family leave policies look like from the perspective of HR professionals?

Breanna Scott: For the most part, many HR professionals recognize the value of these programs and see paid family and medical leave policies as rich benefits for their employees. But aspects of implementing the various state programs are likely to cause confusion and challenges for HR teams overall.

That’s because these programs are including smaller employee groups—many of which have not had leaves managed under the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA)—and that may be a learning curve for some. In addition, state and municipal programs all have different requirements for items such as payroll deductions, eligibility calculations, benefit amounts, benefit durations, covered leave types, and covered family members. Ensuring everything is properly set up in payroll systems and ensuring employees are educated about what they may be eligible for become more challenging as additional states implement these programs.

HR Daily Advisor: Do you think HR professionals are well equipped to handle new policies?

Breanna Scott: I do think HR professionals are up for the challenge of taking on paid family leave, but they certainly have their work cut out for them. They’re already strapped for time, and as mentioned above, it will be important for them to ensure they’re able to manage payroll deductions, administer leave appropriately, and understand eligibility requirements as new regulations come into play. HR professionals can lean on vendors, like disability insurance companies, to help understand these complexities and manage and administer leave.

HR Daily Advisor: Can you talk about some of the complications that new policies, especially if they differ from state to state, will have for HR professionals?

Breanna Scott: Multistate employers have their hands full to keep track of state, municipal, and employer-sponsored paid family leave policies. For those that do operate nationwide, there are nine different states with nine different policies to keep track of—each of these has its own complexities. It’s honestly an administrative nightmare for HR departments, which are already overstretched as it is.

Breanna Scott, product and service management director with The Standard, guides the strategic development of its product portfolio, including market analysis and product positioning. She leads the group insurance product team responsible for creating and refining The Standard’s employee benefits and voluntary product and service offerings.

[1] Paid parental leave matters, Microsoft, 2018, https://blogs.microsoft.com/on-the-issues/2018/08/30/paid-parental-leave-matters/