Portland recently approved a policy offering six weeks of paid parental leave to nearly 6,000 public employees, becoming the latest city to embrace the policy even as universal paid leave remains a nonstarter in Congress.
Beginning January 1, paid time off will be available to Portland city employees for the birth, adoption, or fostering of a child. Workers had previously used vacation time and sick days, or took unpaid leave, a practice that left many new parents in a financial quandary.
“Sometimes employers do the right thing just because it’s the right thing,” said Commissioner Amanda Fritz, who introduced the plan.
Momentum for the expansion of paid leave is building.
Sex. Abortion. Parenthood. Power.
The latest news, delivered straight to your inbox.
President Obama this year gave federal workers the right to take six weeks of paid leave, and called for widespread adoption of the policy in his State of the Union address. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s well-publicized announcement to take two months off after the birth of his daughter comes as tech companies like Amazon, Spotify, and Netflix expand paid leave benefits.
“We want employees to have the flexibility and confidence to balance the needs of their growing families without worrying about work or finances,” Netflix Chief Talent Officer Tawni Cranz wrote in a blog post announcement.
The United States remains the only developed nation without paid maternity leave. Thirteen percent of the U.S. workforce has access to paid family leave, according to a 2014 survey by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
The federal Family Medical Leave Act requires employers with 50 or more workers to provide workers 12 weeks of job-protected leave annually to care for a newborn or ill family member, but offers no guarantee of pay.
Jeff Hayes, study director at the Washington, D.C.-based Institute for Women’s Policy Research, said paid leave policies appeal to a broad spectrum of workers, including millennials seeking work-life balance and baby boomers, who often are caring for an aging spouse or parent.
Employers are taking note as families struggle “to meet work and family needs, to make them mesh better,” Hayes told Rewire. He said major cities like Boston, Washington, D.C., and Pittsburgh have enacted paid family leave measures.
“The discourse seems to have changed,” Hayes said.
Even so, efforts to enact paid family leave at the federal level have stalled. The proposed Family and Medical Insurance Leave Act, sponsored by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-New York), would guarantee all workers two-thirds of their monthly earnings for up to 12 weeks in order to care for a new child or in the case of a serious illness. Funding would come from an increase in the payroll tax.
Hayes blames inaction on a contentious Congress focused on other priorities. And he points to battles over the Affordable Care Act that may have sapped support for federal paid leave legislation.
“The appetite for another social insurance program at that level doesn’t seem to be there,” he said.
Absent a broad paid leave policy, parents typically cobble together a mix of sick days, vacation time, and unpaid leave—a financial burden that’s disproportionately borne by less-educated workers. Sixty-six percent of women with at least a Bachelor’s degree were afforded some form of paid leave before or after childbirth, according to a 2011 survey of maternity leave policies, compared with 19 percent of those who did not finish high school.
Fritz, the Portland commissioner, said she hopes the city’s policy will help attract and retain workers, making it “an employer of choice.”