Large tech companies like Google and Netflix offer generous paid time off for parental leave, and cities and states like San Francisco and New York are following suit. But the vast majority of America’s workforce is still woefully under provided for when it comes to parental leave, and change will likely be slow to occur, particularly for low-wage workers and small businesses.
“Paid family leave has been growing much quicker among large businesses than smaller businesses, and for those with high wages rather than low wages,” said Ben Gitis, director of labor market policy at the American Action Forum. “I would expect more larger businesses and big tech companies to continue this trend, while the smaller businesses and the ones that may lack resources are showing no big signs of growth.”
In March, Gitis' group released a report that showed that, in 2015, 12 percent of private sector workers were offered paid family leave — a rise of 2 percentage points (20 percent) from the 10 percent rate documented in 2010. It’s modest progress that hardly touched low wage workers. Twenty-three percent of workers in the top wage quartile of earnings were offered paid leave, while only 5 percent of workers earning within the bottom wage quartile were given the benefit.
The companies making the most improvements are also those that have the most employees.
“In larger companies of 500-plus workers, we saw [the offer of paid family leave] rise from 17 percent to 22 percent from 2010 through 2015. But in companies with fewer than 50 employees, the growth from 2010 through 2015 was only by one percentage point, from 7 to 8 percent,” Gitis said. “If growth continues at this rate, the top quartile would be close to 50 percent ten years from now in the top quartile, and only 7.8 percent in the bottom quartile.”
AAF’s research doesn’t take into account the new laws passed by New York and San Francisco — laws that are expected to help stimulate growth over the next few years. But these new laws only benefit a sliver of the population. Many mothers and fathers are struggling to navigate a system that doesn’t afford them paid family leave.
Kristin Garrity Sekerci, a 26-year-old employee at a nonprofit in Washington, D.C, became pregnant with her son in 2014 and did not have access to paid or unpaid family leave because her employer did not meet the requirement of 50 or more employees.
“My boss was flexible and willing to wait for me for a few months until I felt ready to come back, but I was making an NGO salary in a city with one of the highest costs of living in the country and with the most expensive child care costs in the country,” Sekerci said in an email. “To have gone for weeks or months without pay was already putting me and my family financially in the hole, so to speak, and going back to work immediately after giving birth was not an option, either, for the sake of my and my newborn's health. As a result, I decided to leave the workforce altogether.”
Rob and Mandy Keithan, also based in D.C, faced a similar roadblock when they had their daughter six and a half months ago.
“We decided that both of us would take one month off when our daughter was born, as that was more important than the money. Our plan went out the window when Mandy was hospitalized due to complications with the pregnancy. Our daughter was born seven weeks early and would need to spend at least one month in the NICU. So what do we do? We had a baby, but not at home yet. The lack of paid leave meant that I went back to work immediately so that I could take a month off when our daughter actually came home, and Mandy just took off several additional months of work,” Rob Keithan said in an email.
Some small businesses that advocate for paid family leave take it upon themselves to implement fair policies. Dean's Beans Organic Coffee Co. in Orange, Massachusetts has just 12 employees, but offers six weeks paid maternity leave, and two weeks paid paternity leave.
“This requires a lot of buy-in from other employees and some juggling of work responsibilities, but it has made for a committed and respected workforce,” said Dean Cycon, Dean’s Beans owner and co-founder.
But Cycon’s method isn’t just generous, it may be good for business.
Sonya Rosenberg, labor and employment partner in the Chicago office of Neal, Gerber & Eisenberg finds that “for certain employers, adopting a tailored, well-thought-out paid parental leave benefit can translate into more invested, happier and more productive employees over the long term, as well as additional and expanded client relationships.”
But most workers at small businesses, especially those that don’t earn high wages, will likely have to wait a very long time to see parental leave benefits trickle down to them — if ever they do.
“It's possible that something radical will happen, and maybe federal law happens to dictate it, but I don’t envision [paid family leave] happening for most low wage workers,” said Justin Capuano, an associate in the commercial litigation department of the New York law firm Cullen & Dykman, adding that “liberal, coastal cities” will be the first to enforce change.