Paid Family Leave is Essential for Gender Equity and Employee Wellbeing

May 16, 2024 / Comments Off on Paid Family Leave is Essential for Gender Equity and Employee Wellbeing

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As we mark Mother’s Day, and as I am less than two weeks from my planned family leave to welcome a new baby into my family, it feels like a good time to talk about family leave policies and their importance in building a supportive and equitable workplace.

I feel incredibly grateful that MNA has a paid leave policy that will allow me to take time away from work and care for my newborn without worrying about paying my bills. I am well aware that in our country, this is an exception and not the norm – my husband’s job does not allow him any leave, and we’ll be relying on sick leave for him to take any time off at all.

In fact, I’ll be the first MNA employee to take advantage of this policy since it was written in 2022. Prior to that, MNA’s handbook did not specify how long an employee could take parental leave, only that they would not be fired because of a pregnancy. What’s more, it required a doctor’s note for disability due to pregnancy!  My colleague Tylyn , the last staff person to give birth, had to negotiate for a mix of paid and unpaid leave in 2021, which meant that just a few months before delivery, she was unsure of whether she would get any leave at all. The open-ended policy was both restrictive and punitive, while at the same time relying on individual negotiation, which opened us up to bias, unfair advantages, and an unclear policy.

Taking care of employees is an advantage, not a cost

I want to be clear that MNA was not a bad employer for not having a paid leave policy – we were merely the norm in a culture that places the burden of leave on companies and organizations, whose truest priority is staying financially solvent. Paying an absent employee can feel like the opposite of financial prudence, and in a sector like ours, where scarcity mindsets are prevalent, it makes sense that many organizations put off instituting paid leave policies – even when we know it is what would be best for the employees that we otherwise treat “like family.”

There is also an argument to be made that paid leave would be in the best interest of the organization. Nonprofits consistently report struggles to attract and retain employees, and to keep up with pay from the private sector. We can and should make better strides in paying competitively, but we can also leverage quality of life and work satisfaction as advantages of mission-oriented work. After all, wouldn’t it be ideal to retain dedicated, knowledgeable employees who stay in part because of quality, humane benefits and policies, rather than to constantly hire and train new folks?

Thankfully, due in part to Tylyn’s frustration with the lack of a policy, pushing by female employees, and a commitment by the MNA board to bring equity into the re-writing of our employee handbook, we now have a paid family leave policy. We made sure that this policy is inclusive – it applies to employees of any gender, and not just to the birth of a baby, but to adoption and fostering as well.

How much leave is enough leave?

I’ll get eight weeks at my regular salary to care for my new baby. Eight weeks is certainly better than nothing, but I would be dishonest if I said it feels like enough. Six weeks is the mark at which I’ll be cleared for resuming regular physical activity – if all goes well. I can take an additional eight weeks unpaid, which is also far better than millions of parents across the country – but in all honesty, I cannot afford to take two months without a salary. Research shows that at least 12 weeks offers the greatest benefit for mothers and infants.

Sending a two-month-old to daycare full time is another big, heartbreaking question mark. With the childcare crisis, my husband and I didn’t know if we would even be able to find care for an infant in time for us to go back to work. Again, in this I am lucky. My husband is a teacher, and the baby’s arrival will coincide with his summer break (a stroke of pure luck). We found someone who can take the baby part-time when he returns to school, and thanks to MNA’s generous PTO and sick leave policies, I can work part-time for a few months this fall, facilitating a gentler transition to daycare for our newborn.

Don’t leave wellbeing up to luck

As I reflect on my situation and what it means for nonprofits across our state, although I am lucky, an employee’s health and family wellbeing should not be left up to luck. If we are truly the sector of the common good – if our mission is to make our communities healthier, stronger, and more vibrant – then we should begin by taking care of the people that serve our missions. We should begin by finding a way to provide them with the rest and financial stability they need to start a new life out on the right foot.

Takeaways for writing a family leave policy that advances equity:

  1. For leave to be meaningful, it must be paid leave. FMLA means employees of larger organizations (50+ employees) are already eligible for 12 weeks unpaid leave – what this really means is just that their job will be there when they get back. But maintaining salary while on leave means the employee will truly have a chance to recover.
  2. Leave should apply to all caregivers and non-typical families. Make sure your leave policy does not exacerbate gendered expectations of home life by only applying to birthing mothers. All parents regardless of gender need to bond with their babies – and the birthing parent needs support and care from their partner. Be sure to be inclusive of non-traditional families by including non-heterosexual relationships, adoption, surrogacy, fostering, miscarriage, stillbirth, and other circumstances in your policy.
  3. 12 weeks is the research backed minimum leave length.  Longer leaves may lead to improved mental and physical health for mothers and result in decreased infant mortality, longer duration of breastfeeding, and more positive mother-child interactions. Longer leave times have also been associated with fathers having greater involvement in the care of their children and increased satisfaction with parenting.
  4. Leave policies must apply to all employees. We know that frontline and direct service employees are often harder and/or more expensive to replace while they are gone. But for true equity, leave policies need to apply to everyone in an organization.

Some resources for learning more about the importance of family leave:

Forbes: Parental Leave as a Gateway to Workplace Equity

University of California San Fransisco: National Paid Maternity Leave Makes Sense for Mothers, Babies, and Maybe the Economy

The Gender Policy Report: Paid Leave Policy Design Matters for Workplace Equality

Child Trends: Recommendations for Creating Equitable and Inclusive Paid Family Leave Policies.

Course: Equitable Employee Handbooks

Want to learn more about writing an equitable handbook? We have a course for that!

Author: Kate Arpin

Communication & Platforms Manager

Kate Arpin joined MNA in 2021 as Digital Platforms Specialist, and transitioned to Communication & Platforms Manager in 2022. She grew up in Twin Bridges, Montana, and earned a degree in Creative Writing from the University of Puget Sound in Tacoma, Washington. Prior to working for MNA, she served as Communications Manager for the Montana Association of Conservation Districts, and spent some time as a freelance WordPress designer. She brings a "let's figure it out" attitude and a passion for environmental conservation to team MNA. Kate lives in Helena with her family, and when not in her plant-filled office can most likely be found working in her garden.