Benefits and Compensation

Make Sure Your Parental Leave Policy Is Ready for Post-COVID-19 Baby Boom

Early during the COVID-19 pandemic, there was speculation about a baby boom in the coming months because couples were spending virtually all their time at home together, perhaps with too much “downtime.” An immediate boom ended up not occurring, according to a recent study by University of Michigan researchers. But, the slight pause in pregnancy and childbirths is now making a reversal, meaning birth rates may be on the rise and increasing more quickly than normal. Prepare for the uptick in births by reviewing your current parental leave policies, ensuring they not only comply with applicable law but also match your company values.

Know Your Obligations

Employers may be legally obligated to provide parental leave to employees. On a federal level, the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) requires employers with 50 or more employees to provide up to 12 workweeks of unpaid, protected leave to them for the birth and care of a newborn. Individuals are eligible for the leave only if they have been employed with the company for at least 12 months, have at least 1,250 hours of service in the past 12 months, and work at a location with at least 50 employees in a 75-mile radius. If an employer has any FMLA-eligible employees, it must provide a general FMLA notice in its handbook or other materials related to benefits or leave rights.

Employers with fewer than 50 employees aren’t required to follow the FMLA but may be subject to additional parental leave requirements under state or local law, depending on their locations, size, and other factors. In North Dakota, you can rest assured there are no local ordinances requiring family leave because the state legislature passed a law this year prohibiting localities from enacting such rules.

Recognize New Moms and Dads

You can go above and beyond what the law mandates and voluntarily provide more generous leave to new parents. When doing so, it’s important to extend the benefits on an equal basis to avoid discrimination claims.

For instance, if your policy offers six weeks of paid leave to employees strictly for purposes of bonding with or providing care to a new child, the benefit should be available to both new moms and new dads. Extending it only to  new moms could discriminate against new dads because both males and females are able to bond with a new child. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) has taken action against employers with such discriminatory policies, including beauty products giant Estee Lauder in 2017, which ended up paying a hefty settlement to the class of male employees.

That said, the EEOC also has issued guidance that you can establish special leave policies for female employees to recover from childbirth or for pregnancy limitations because that type of medical leave can be experienced only by female employees carrying the child. If you’re considering such as policy, you should be careful to ensure it is strictly intended to address medical-related pregnancy and childbirth absences and doesn’t morph into bonding leave, improperly excluding male employees.

Understand Impact of Parental Leave Benefit

Paid parental leave can be considered an attractive benefit to prospective employees. Applicants in their 20s and 30s may be looking to join companies offering the leave because they want to expand their families while simultaneously advancing their careers. If paid leave is offered as a benefit, you should determine whether your policy is competitive and contemporary to attract the best new talent.

In reviewing or revising any parental leave benefit, you also should consider the perspectives of current and future employees. Is the amount of leave enough for them to spend quality time with their new children? Is the time away balanced with their coworkers’ needs? Are employees really taking advantage of the benefit? Or are they hesitant to do so because they fear taking the leave will set them back on a path toward advancement or they will be judged by their supervisors or managers?

New parents often feel the stress of choosing career over family, but an effective parental leave policy, along with a company’s active support of employees’ bonding time with their new little ones without fear of a major setback at work, can help alleviate the stress and solidify an individual’s commitment to the company.

Takeaways

A baby boom may be on the horizon. You should prepare for the potential influx of newborns by reviewing current parental leave policies, or drafting new ones, to ensure they comply with applicable law and reflect the company’s values.

Vanessa L. Lystad is an attorney with the Vogel Law Firm in Fargo, North Dakota. Normally, you can reach her at vlystad@vogellaw.com, but she is on maternity leave at the moment after the birth of her second child. Congrats, Vanessa!