Think Bigger About Paid Parental Leave

The U.S. has some of the worst, most unequal parental leave policies in the world, and millions of working parents don’t get a day of paid leave.

As companies strive to be more supportive of their employees and promote equity in their benefits packages, many are focusing on boosting paid time off for new parents. Netflix made headlines in 2015 when it extended its generous parental leave benefits for salaried employees to the hourly workers in its distribution centers. More recently, Starbucks has come under pressure to increase parental leave for its baristas and hourly employees.

On the whole, we can probably all agree this is a good thing. The U.S. has some of the worst, most unequal parental leave policies in the world, and millions of working parents don’t get a day of paid leave. One recent analysis found 1 in 4 new moms go back to work within 10 days of giving birth. That’s insane, and we need to do better.

But there is something I do not quite understand. Do we think that the only time parents need extraordinary consideration is when their children have just arrived? Newborns are a lot of work, sure, and allowing opportunities for babies (and parents) to bond and adjust is critical. However, even if parental leaves are super-sized, this is just the beginning.

For years to come, new parents will need flexibility. Employees who are never sick will be using more sick days… because the baby is sick. There will be medical appointments, visits to see the grandparents, days spent visiting potential pre-school options, times when the nanny or caregiver cancels at the last moment, parent teacher conferences, midday holiday singing performances, and so on.

When I see places like Netflix offering up to a year of paid parental leave, I find myself wondering if that is the best allocation of resources. What if Netflix invested the same amount of money but over a longer period of time and allowed employees more discretion in determining how to use their benefit?

My hunch is that if each employee were given one year of paid time off that could be redeemed any time before a child turns five years old, many would continue to use 8-12 weeks up front, during the traditional parental leave window. And they would parcel out the rest over time to attend to all the stuff parents do. A month each summer, perhaps. Two afternoons each month to volunteer at pre-school. Or a full day each month to knock out things like trips to the dentist.

By spreading the benefit over a longer period, employers would better align to employees’ true needs and raise the chances of retaining talent for five years, not just the year following a child’s arrival. Employees would be less stressed, more focused, and more productive.

In addition, parents might want more than time off. Some would gladly trade days off for resources to be spent on child care.

From a social good standpoint, I also think there is a strong argument for flexibility. Our goal is not only that each infant has a strong first year. We know that the next several years are also critical and fragile. We should applaud policies that build the foundation for a healthy childhood.

If I had to choose a single point in time for parents to get time away from work, then sure, I would pick the first weeks of life. But if we are debating how to allocate an additional investment of resources for parents, I think some families would choose more up-front parental leave, and others would not.

So, what do you say, Netflix? Thank you for taking the lead in recognizing that great workers also want to be great parents. Is there also room to let those parents get creative with how they make use of your generosity?

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