Beginning in January, employees of American Express will have access to an increased range of benefits which include paid family leave and financial support toward adoption, surrogacy and IVF. Before we get into the details of why these new benefits are an incredibly leap forward, we should also remind our readers that the US is the only developed nation in the world not to offer any form of federally-mandated and guaranteed paid family leave.
Under current law, the Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993 allows for 12 weeks of unpaid leave for mothers of biological or adopted children. But it doesn’t apply to every mother. She must work at a firm with 50 or more employees and have worked at that company for least 12 months, and completed minimum 1250 hours of work. The Department of Labor estimates only 12% of American workers are offered paid leave though their employers.
Many organizations, most notably conservative, argue that mandating any sort of paid family leave law nationally would hurt businesses, which seems odd and hypocritical given the emphasis on “family values” coming from conservative legislators and think tanks. In comparison, Sweden has one of the most progressive parental leave policies in the world.
They allow parents to stay at home for 480 days in total, and men must take 60 of those days to themselves or they forfeit the entire leave. The idea being this is to encourage co-parenting (where possible, of course) and to break down gender stigma that only mothers do the child-rearing.
Although we have yet to see a comprehensive national bill that would address all financial, legal, and parenting aspects to something like parental leave, we are seeing a number of big corporations taking the lead on this issue. In fact, AmEx is THE largest corporation to expand its leave benefits.
Full and part-time employees will be eligible to take 20 weeks (5 months) of paid leave, and the policy covers all genders, recognizing the ever-evolving and diverse family structures within our society today. Additionally, they are offering $35,000 to assist with adoption or surrogacy (with a maximum of two per employee), and a lifetime maximum of $35,000 towards infertility treatment.
The paid leave includes biological mothers, adoptive mothers and those having children via surrogacy. But wait, there’s more. Under the new policy, breast-feeding mothers will have 24 hour access to a lactation consultant, and during work-related travel once they return to the work space, the company will pay to ship breast milk home for free. That’s what you call supporting and promoting family values.
“We are taking a close look at the market and where the market is moving overall. We think 20 is a generous step. Our employees are generally saying we want more help and more support. These are busy people with busy lives,” said Kevin Cox, the chief human resources officer at AmEx.
Company benefits will also help expectant parents, paying for a “parental concierge” whom they can consult regarding information about the parenting experience. Previously, the company only offered separate provisions for primary and secondary caregivers of six and two weeks paid leave, respectively.
The same week AmEx unveiled their new paid leave plan, two other multi-national corporations also changed their internal policies. IKEA announced a 4 month paid leave plan for all it’s US-based employees, which is rare for a huge retail chain, according to Forbes. Their plan also includes surrogacy and IVF benefits.
Financial investment firm AXA changed its policy to offer 16 weeks of paid leave to full and part-time employees, and 4 weeks for non-primary caregivers. This is up from their previous 10 week leave policy, according to CNN. AXA also launched an infant transition program which gives new parents 30 days of subsidized childcare (3 days of which are completely paid for) touching on how important the programs and support systems beyond just the initial months after having a family are.
As Bloomberg points out, there seems to be a pattern among major financial institutions, recognizing what an important issue paid leave is when it comes to their employee environment. Earlier this year Fidelity and Bank of America expanded their own policies, both offering 16 weeks of paid leave. Fidelity will also offer up to $10,000 in total benefits for individual employees who are currently paying off student loan debts.
But probably the most monumental shift in the workplace parental support discussion is happening in the creative industry. At the same time Fidelity made its announcement, online marketplace Etsy said it would offer all of its 819 employees a full 26 weeks of paid leave when they become a parent, regardless of gender or family circumstance. That also includes adoptive parents.
Juliet Gorman, Etsy’s director of culture and engagement, said paid family leave is fast becoming the issue that gives certain companies a competitive edge over others, where generous benefits are often the deciding factor on employee retention.
“This certainly puts in the position of being a leader…For us it’s very important that we demonstrate that we’re a destination for that talent,” she said.
Richard Branson announced a monumental paid family leave policy in June 2015, offering fathers a full 52 weeks of paid leave (if they’ve been at the company for minimum 4 years), which matches the current 52 weeks offered to mothers by the British Government. It became a huge turning point in the conversation about including fathers in the parenting conversation, where massive corporations are starting to recognize the changing family dynamics of their employees and in greater society.
In 2015, streaming giant Netflix unveiled its new paid leave policy which would allow unlimited time off for both parents during the first year after having a child, while being paid the same.
The tech sector has also seen improvements in various companies. Microsoft increased its policy to offer 12 weeks of leave to both parents at full pay starting in November 2015. But probably the most notable company to increase their leave benefits was Facebook, after its billionaire founder Mark Zuckerberg and his wife Priscilla Chan announced they were having a baby in July 2015. In their announcement, the couple also candidly shared with the world the heartbreak of enduring three miscarriages.
Because of his experience, Mark decided that every Facebook employee in the world regardless of gender or family structure will have access to 4 months of paid leave when they have a child. There are now a number of tech companies such as Google, Yahoo, Reddit, Amazon, Apple and Twitter who have changed and increased their paid family leave policies over the past couple of years, some of which include support for fathers and adoptive parents.
But not every American works for one of the companies listed above, which is why it is imperative that with each new private marketplace paid family leave announcement, the pressure mounts on legislators around the country to take heed of the benefits for everyone. In California, one of only 4 states (including New York, Rhode Island and New Jersey) which offer paid family and medical leave, economists have found although paid family leave benefits employees more than employers (especially mothers and women, who are more likely to return to their jobs) it doesn’t necessarily hurt a business’ bottom line either.
The California law has been in place for a decade, so if there is one place the nation can look to to find out whether a paid family leave policy work, it is there. As outgoing President Barack Obama said in January 2015 during his State of the Union address, “It’s time we stop treating child care as a side issue or a women’s issue, and treat it like the national economic priority that it is.”
Incoming President Trump shared his plan for maternity leave during his campaign in 2016, and Cosmopolitan did a great job in examining the fine details, and explaining to readers how it fails to include fathers at all and doesn’t address same-sex couples or adoptive parents who happen to be male. This is not good enough. Big businesses are leading the way, but they cannot cover everyone. Government can play a crucial role here. With American Express being the latest and largest corporation to offer a comprehensive range of benefits under its new paid family leave program, we are optimistic this issue will continue to move ever forward.