Increase in paid parental leave policies still leave women behind

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In the last few years, the U.S. — a country with no federal requirement for paid family leave — has seen a parental leave boomlet. Last year alone, 14 major employers, including Apple and Citigroup, announced new or expanded policies that covered an estimated 2.4 million workers.

But in a nation where over 80% of working people don’t get any time off to care for newborns, the rise in coverage has been uneven, according to a report released Thursday from Paid Leave for the United States, an advocacy group that catalogs parental leave policies at major U.S. companies.

For the first time since it began tracking leave policies in the U.S. four years ago, the group created an industry breakdown of benefits and found that workers in certain sectors, like finance and technology, are much more likely to get paid time off to care for newborns than those in others, like health care and retail. Women and low-income workers are disproportionately represented in the fields that offer little or no time off. “The sectors where people need paid family leave the most, don’t have it,” said Annie Sartor, a director at Paid Leave for the United States.

Since the group started tracking leave policies in 2016, the biggest companies have beefed up offerings. After a “banner year” in 2018, which started with Walmart and Starbucks announcing new leave policies, “momentum continued” in 2019, said Sartor. The report this year included 94 companies that employ an estimated 126 million workers.

In general, paid family and medical leave is more popular and inclusive than ever. More companies are providing more time off to more of their workers, the report finds, with three-quarters of organizations now giving equal time off to all workers. Target, for example, last year expanded its policy to include part-time workers and Goldman Sachs Group in November changed its leave policy so all new parents— not just “primary caregivers”—can take off 20 weeks with pay. Beyond the private sector, in December the U.S. government guaranteed paid time off for 2.1 million federal workers to care for newborns.

As the Baby Boomer generation ages, “caregiver leave,” which gives employees paid time off to care for a sick or aging family member, is also on the rise with more than a quarter of employers in the report now offering the benefit, up from 16% last year.

The general upward trend, however, obscures broader inequities in coverage. “The continued expansion is primarily contained to white collar jobs and leaves behind millions of working people,” Sartor said. The companies in industries competing for the best talent, like financial services and technology, are engaging in a benefits arms race, which has led to longer and more comprehensive parental leave policies.

Teachers, nurses and truck drivers are less likely to have access to paid time off. Women make up three-quarters of health care and education workers, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Almost two-thirds of leisure and hospitality workers, who are also less likely to get leave, are low-income, Sartor said.

In the U.S., where there’s no federal paid family leave program, some businesses have moved in to provide parents with a safety net. While all of the 20 largest U.S. employers offer at least some paid leave to some of their workers, this approach has still left the majority of working people without coverage. “While large employers are moving on this issue, we're never going to get to full coverage on an employer by employer approach,” Sartor said. “This really underlines the need for public policy on this issue.”

For the first time, there is bipartisan support in Congress for paid family leave. The only problem? The parties can’t agree on how to fund it. Republicans want to let people dip into their Social Security funds; Democrats want to rely on employer contributions. Still, there’s more movement than ever: This week the House Ways and Means Committee held a hearing on the proposals.

Bloomberg News