Heather Boushey and Katie Bethell: Companies do not provide adequate paid family leave to all employees
The private sector and government must work together to create new and improved family leave policies
Editor’s Note: Heather Boushey is the executive director of the Washington Center for Equitable Growth, and former chief economist for Hillary Clinton’s transition team. She is also the author of “Finding Time: The Economics of Work-Life Conflict,” from Harvard University Press. Katie Bethell is the executive director of Paid Leave for the US, a new national nonpartisan organization dedicated to winning paid family leave for everyone in the United States. The views expressed in this commentary are their own.
When Kristen Picciolo found out she was pregnant, the excitement and joy of the news was tempered by a mounting worry: How many days would she be able to have with her newborn? Would it be enough to bond and care for her new child? How would she fare physically if she returned to work before being fully healed from childbirth?
Picciolo works as a barista at Starbucks, and, like millions of parents who work in retail, her company doesn’t give her adequate paid time off after childbirth.
Picciolo, however, recently channeled her frustration into action. She traveled from Ohio to the Starbucks shareholder meeting in Seattle. When she voiced her dissent directly to Kevin Johnson, Starbucks president, he told her, “We had to make a hard decision how to prioritize … that said, we are always taking feedback from our partners.”
Inequality is the challenge of our times. And while public discourse often focuses on income inequality, there is another egregious issue: the time gap. In the United States today, being there when your family needs you the most is an elite benefit: Only 13% of private sector employees have access to paid family leave, and millions of Americans don’t get even a single day of paid time for caregiving.
While media coverage of parental leave largely focuses on corporate professionals taking three months of paid leave or more, it paints a wildly misleading picture. Only 4% of low-wage working people get paid family leave. And the sad truth is that today in America one in four new mothers is back at work just 10 days after childbirth.
In recent weeks, we’ve seen a slate of corporate paid family leave announcements from some of the largest employers in the United States: Starbucks, Yum brands (KFC, Taco Bell, Pizza Hut) and others. While the media has largely heralded these announcements as a boon for working families, the policies that are being lauded are actually part of a trend to expand corporate parental leave only for those who work in white-collar corporate jobs, while leaving out the retail employees who comprise the vast majority of a company’s workforce.
When a company like Starbucks announces it will provide 18 weeks of paid leave for new mothers and 12 weeks for new fathers in corporate headquarters, but only six weeks for barista birth moms and nothing for barista dads or adoptive parents – it begs the question: Don’t brands that claim to value families have a responsibility to value all families? And what would it look like to have an economy – and business practices – that work for everyone, not just those at the top?
There is extensive research on the benefits of paid family leave. It has been shown to enhance children’s health and development and is associated with increases in the duration of breastfeeding and reductions in infant deaths and behavioral issues, as well as reduced postpartum depression in mothers.
But paid family leave isn’t just critical for public health, it’s also critical for a healthy economy. Paid family leave increases labor-force participation for both men and women, encouraging parents to stay in the workforce after they have a child or when they need time away to care for a loved one.
What’s more, paid family leave increases employee retention. Research shows this is true not just for positions filled by executives and managers, but for low-wage workers as well. Reduced turnover costs at all levels of employment is beneficial for companies, period.
The challenge and opportunity for companies is to be part of the solution, and the first step is to stop being a source of inequality. Some companies are getting it right: Nike, Levi’s and Ikea are leading the way with recent parental leave announcements that apply to their retail staff as well as their corporate headquarters. The next step is for companies to work with policymakers to get to the root of the problem by supporting public policy.
The United States is the only developed nation in the world with no federal paid family leave program, and 46 states have no paid family leave at all. The most cost-effective way for businesses to support their employees is to advocate for a federal paid family leave insurance program – one that, similar to many disability programs, would enable people to take paid time to care for a close family member as well as for their own serious illness.
Such programs go beyond parental leave and affect the entire American workforce. While we may not all expect to have children, we all know that someday we may be called upon to care for an aging parent, a spouse with cancer or our own serious illness, and that too many people face insurmountable challenges with public and workplace policy that puts family last, whether it’s for a baby’s first breaths or an elderly parent’s last days. A paid family leave insurance program will enable all of us to be there with our families, when being there is the most important thing of all.
Ultimately, when we work to create a more equitable society where both families and businesses thrive, we create an America that works for everyone.