It was too good to last.
Last week, employees at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation learned that paid family leave offered by the organization was being cut in half, from a full year to 6 months.
The foundation admitted that yearlong absences were hindering the foundation’s productivity. Its human resources director told the New York Times that 6 months is actually optimal, as longer leaves can apparently backfire for all involved. Research indicates that women who take extended leaves have trouble returning to the labor market or reaching senior positions. To soften the blow, the foundation will offer a $20,000 stipend to new parents to cover necessities.
Yet the foundation’s policy was — and still is, frankly — a departure from the norm in the United States, which is hardly internationally renowned for its parental leave offerings. In fact, the U.S. remains the only advanced industrialized nation with no federal government guarantees for paid family leave. It’s generally up to private companies to offer leave as an employee benefit, and even then, only 15 percent of U.S. workers get any paid family leave, according to 2017 Bureau of Labor Statistics
[Related: This Woman Started Up After Her Postpartum Request For More Flexible Hours Was Denied]
Some states have taken strides to ensure paid parental leave for employees. New York, for instance, has instituted a paid family leave plan that grants over 2 months of time off to eligible workers. It also ensures job security and continued health benefits. Still, most new parents feel pressure — both financial and societal — to return to work as soon as possible.
How can a business owner make sure they’re doing right by their expecting employees or new parents? When I spoke with William Perkins, a lawyer at Seyfarth Shaw and an expert on maternity leave, he emphasized that employers first off need to understand existing laws (and they vary from state to state) before coming up with time-off policies.
[Related: The Women-Run Website Helping Female Employees Find Supportive Professional Homes]
“In terms of startups, you may have a lawyer in your group and you may not, but there’s always a connection to a law firm, perhaps in creating the LLC, or incorporating the business,” he told me. “Most firms will have business law connections; that would be one of the better ways to get that info.” Organizations like the Small Business Administration can also help shed some light, as can online resources.
But beyond that, the most important thing is to support your employees, and to create a workplace that inspires positivity, productivity and a strong effort from everyone who works for you. Ensuring open lines of communication and creating clear, researched policies are significant steps to take toward being a fair and supportive boss to expecting workers or new parents.
There are too many stories about employers who make easily avoidable mistakes that turn into lawsuits. Just this week, a female mechanic working for the New York City Fire Department filed a lawsuit, alleging outrageous work rules forced her to walk around her male colleagues with her breast pump still attached.
Use common sense, mixed with compassion — even if you can’t offer them a year off.
[Related: Why Kate Hudson’s Breastfeeding Photo Went Viral]