Katie Griffith is in many ways the walking example of statistics of a working mom today. She is 32, pregnant with her second child and has just been promoted to director in the advisory practice at PricewaterhouseCoopers.

The average woman gives birth for the first time at age 311/2, according to MetLife claims statistics. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, one in 12 women giving birth today are over 35; in 1970, it was one in 100.

Women are waiting longer to have children, and when they do, both parents are more involved in child rearing, and that includes taking time off at the time of birth. Parental leave does not fall under short-term disability, but in an era where household gender roles are changing, staying at home after childbirth or an adoption is a benefit more men are seeking.

In 2008, 49% of men said they take most or an equal share of child care responsibilities, up from 41% in 1992. Women agree that dads are stepping up, with 30% saying their spouse takes or shares the responsibility, up from 21% in 1992, according to a report in 2009 by the Families and Work Institute.

This shift in responsibility is slowly, but surely, filtering into benefits policy at mostly large companies, where competition for talent is high and prospective employees almost expect parental leave to be included among benefits offerings.

"It's a matter of resources, and there is also a market-driven approach," says Debbie Harrison, a senior regulatory analyst at the National Business Group on Health. While maternity leave is widely accepted - 95% of companies surveyed in a 2010/2011 report by Towers Watson provided it - only 59.9% offer paternity leave, and 63.6% offer adoption leave. The health care and utilities industries offered the largest percentage of paternal leave time, with an average of eight weeks.

 

Growing expectations

The expectation for parental leave benefits took hold at PwC when, seven years ago, company leaders conducted a benchmarking study and found that the firm fell behind when it came to parental benefits.

PwC now offers three weeks of paid parental leave, but it works differently than most firms. The "primary" parent gets 12 weeks, and the secondary parent receives three weeks, regardless of whether the parents are a same- or opposite-sex couple.

Griffith has been with PwC for almost 10 years; it was her first job out of college. She considered leaving the workforce to have children, but knowing about the firm's parental benefits and a possible flexible work schedule, she decided to stay. Now, she works a 60% schedule Tuesday through Thursday and is at home with her 21/2-year-old daughter to take her to swim lessons and "do the things I'd do with her if I was a stay-at-home mom."

"It's important that [parents] take that time; you shouldn't rush back," says Jennifer Allyn, managing director in PwC's office of diversity. The time off can also include flexible work, which means a secondary parent can arrange to work a shortened workweek that will extend into a longer time period.

Griffith says she eventually would like to go back to working full-time, but for now, she is content with her current schedule. Her daughter is in day care those other days, and if she has to go into the office on her day "off," PwC subsidizes back-up care so that Griffith pay only pays $25 a day.

PwC is a highly time-driven environment: Results are based on billable hours and at the end of each year, each employee is evaluated. For both primary and secondary parents, they can opt out of the competitive grading system, under which there are only so many high-grade marks to be given out. Instead, the employee can opt to roll over their rating from the prior year.

Griffith has opted out of the system once before, after she had her first child and was out of the office for seven months. She intends on doing it again after she takes off eight more months following the birth of her second child. "It made me feel like they were committed to my long-term success. They really wanted me to stay and be a valued member of the practice, and it wasn't about one bad year," she says of PwC's parental benefits and rating opt-out. "If you're a good performer, they want to make you feel like you're appreciated and you want to stay."

 

On a smaller scale

For smaller firms, of course, it's harder for employees to absorb the work when a parent takes parental leave, compared to an organization like PwC with 35,000 employees. Even if the leave is unpaid, it costs money to replace a full-time worker with a temp, and lost productivity can become an issue when the employee re-enters the workspace and starts playing catch-up.

Scott Thompson, an account executive at FirstPerson, an employee benefits service firm, recently worked with a large technology firm in Indianapolis considering upgrading its leave policy for new dads, potentially giving up to five weeks.

The company ended up not implementing a parental leave program because it chose instead to focus on the short-term disability benefit to get mothers additional salary coverage. However, enhancing general parental benefits, which would include working dads, is next on the docket when resources become available.

"The demographics of family change, and so there is the situation where the wife is more of the bread- winner or an equal partner," Thompson says.

In 2008, 66% of child-free women and 69% of young mothers wanted higher-responsibility jobs; today, there is no difference between young women with and without children in their desire to move to jobs with more responsibility.

Though smaller companies are less likely to offer paternal leave (94.9%), Thompson also thinks it's easier for these firms to offer it because there is less red tape to go through; FirstPerson, which has 40 employees, offers eight weeks upon birth.

 

Culture considerations

For MetLife, which administers family and medical leave, and STD benefits, the common amount of time for parental leave is 10 days for mostly larger employers, according to Paul Taylor, vice president of group disability. Ten percent of FMLA absences are pregnancy-related, while 7% are taken for "child bonding."

Even if it is an option for both parents to take time off, the realistic ability to do so comes down to company culture.

"I'm not going to say paternal leave is huge; some employers still have a problem even allowing women to take maternity leave," says Peter Ronza, president at Pontifex Consulting Group.

He says he's seen resistance on the part of workers who have a hard time taking vacation. "People take it when they're exempt and have the ability to work remotely, so although they're 'off,' they're still connected."

 

Make it o.k.

So how to make it O.K. for employees to take leave? "You have to rely on the pulse of the place, no matter the size of the organization," Ronza says. "Their job as a manager is to let them [employees] use the policies, and their job is to not say under their breath that it's a bad idea."

Thompson agrees: "Culturally, it's different from the norm, so if you have a male taking off, it may not be perceived well by other employees. At the end of the day, if we roll something out that may be valuable, but the end outcome may be they take time off but it creates tension, it can defeat the purpose."

Still, FMLA leave is unpaid unless an employer decides otherwise, and only 11.7% of companies surveyed by Towers Watson guaranteed employment beyond the 12 weeks mandated.

"You would think from a labor economics perspective that when the market tightens and talent becomes competitive, then you'd have to be in front of those benefits to be competitive," Ronza says. "But it's always a case of haves and have-nots. It's one step at a time."

Though Griffith was able to take short-term disability and parental leave for her first child's birth, her husband was not. This year, however, his company has implemented a one-week leave policy, which he'll be taking advantage of after the second baby is born.

"It's definitely a balance, but it's neat as well," she says. "I get to do the things that I'd get to do if I was a stay-at-home mom and then a couple days a week, I go into work and get to be professional and keep my mind sharp."

Register or login for access to this item and much more

All Employee Benefit News becomes archived within a week of it being published

Community members receive:
  • All recent and archived articles
  • Conference offers and updates
  • A full menu of enewsletter options
  • Web seminars, white papers, ebooks

Don't have an account? Register for Free Unlimited Access