Early on in the COVID-19 pandemic, there was speculation of a baby boom in the coming months due to couples spending virtually all their time at home together, perhaps with too much “downtime.” An immediate baby boom ended up not occurring, according to a recent study by University of Michigan researchers. The slight pause in pregnancy and child births is now making a reversal, meaning birth rates may be on the rise and increasing more than normal. Employers should prepare themselves for this baby boom by reviewing their current parenting leave policies, ensuring the policies not only comply with applicable law, but match their company values.
Knowing Your Obligations
Employers may be legally obligated to provide parental leave to employees. On a federal level, the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) requires employers with 50 or more employees to provide up to 12 workweeks of unpaid, protected leave to employees for the birth of a newborn or to care for that newborn. Employees are eligible for this leave only if they have been employed with the company for at least 12 months, have at least 1,250 hours of service in the past 12 months, and work at a location with at least 50 employees in a 75-mile radius. If an employer has any FMLA-eligible employees, it must provide general FMLA notice in its handbook or other materials related to employee benefits or leave rights.
Employers with less than 50 employees are not required to follow the FMLA, but may be subject to additional parental leave requirements under state, or even local, law, depending on the employer’s locations, size, and other factors. For those employers in North Dakota, they can rest assured that there are no local ordinances requiring family leave, as the North Dakota legislature passed a law this year, prohibiting localities from enacting such ordinances.
Recognize New Moms and New Dads
Employers can go above and beyond what is mandated by law and voluntarily provide more generous leave to new parents. When doing so, it is important to extend these benefits on an equal basis to avoid claims of discrimination. For instance, if an employer has a policy providing six weeks of paid leave to employees strictly for purposes of bonding with or providing care to a new child, the leave should be provided to both new moms and new dads. Extending this benefit to only new moms could discriminate against new dads because both males and females are able to bond with a new child. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) has taken action against employers having these discriminatory policies, including against beauty product giant Estee Lauder in 2017, which ended in a hefty settlement to the class of male employees.
That said, the EEOC has also issued guidance that employers can establish special leave policies for female employees to recover from childbirth or for pregnancy limitations because this type of medical leave can only be experienced by female employees carrying the child. If employers are considering this type of policy, they should be careful to ensure this benefit is strictly intended to address medical-related pregnancy and childbirth absences and doesn’t morph into bonding leave, improperly excluding male employees.
Understanding the Impact of Parental Leave Benefit
Paid parental leave can be considered an attractive benefit to prospective employees. Applicants in their 20s and 30s may be looking to join companies offering paid parental leave because they want to expand their families while, at the same time, wanting to expand their careers. If offered as a benefit, employers should determine whether their paid parental leave policy is competitive and contemporary in order to attract the best new talent.
Employers should also consider the perspectives of current or future employees in reviewing or revising any parental leave benefit. Is the amount of leave enough for employees to spend quality time with their new children? Is the time away balanced with the needs of other employees? Are employees really taking advantage of the parental leave benefit? Or, are they hesitant to do so because they fear that taking leave will set them back on a path towards advancement or they feel judged by their supervisors or managers? New parents often feel the stress of choosing career over family, but an effective parental leave policy, along with a company’s active support of employees’ bonding time with their new little ones without fear of a major setback at work, can help alleviate this stress and solidify an employee’s commitment to the company.
A baby boom may be on the horizon. Employers should prepare for the potential influx of newborns by reviewing current parental leave policies, or drafting new ones, to ensure they comply with applicable law and reflect the company’s values.