What I learned while updating my company’s pregnancy benefits

The numbers on benefits for pregnant women in the workplace in America are anything but encouraging.

Out of the world’s 195 countries, the U.S. is one of only a handful that doesn’t mandate a national policy for paid maternity leave. Hopefully, Congress’s introduction this week of the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act is a step toward changing that.

But as things stand now, one in four American women go back to work 10 days after giving birth, research indicates. And just 14% of U.S. employees have access to paid family leave, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

We know programs that support parents from the moment they begin considering having a child until well after birth are good for the family, for the child and, yes, for business. Yet, even with the PWFA’s introduction, until it passes there is still no law on the books to provide meaningful support for pregnant women at work. Instead, we have a patchwork of state laws that outline some protections, primarily for at-risk pregnancies.

See also: Employers rally behind proposed legislation protecting pregnant workers

This lack of a federal law is why employers are stepping in to close the gap.

Baby nursery maternity

More companies, including Ikea, Johnson & Johnson, Hilton and Hewlett Packard Enterprise, are expanding or beginning to offer paid family leave benefits to their U.S. employees, according to research from Boston Consulting Group.

At XPO Logistics, we’ve also made some key changes to our benefits. We’ve always had a policy to provide certain accommodations to pregnant employees, but we recently made the decision to enact a new policy for pregnant employees.

Our new standalone pregnancy care policy, launched on Jan. 1, no longer bundles pregnancy under the category of disability. The policy is part of a larger set of offerings to help support women and families in the workplace. We have a family bonding benefit that gives primary caregivers six weeks of fully paid leave (two weeks for secondary caregivers), as well as other benefits like a virtual clinic that offers services from pre-pregnancy planning all the way through to return-to-work support, via a 24-hour network of 1,400 healthcare practitioners across 20 different specialties.

Here are some of the things we learned while updating these benefits that other employers should consider.

Open up. For companies, it all starts with the right mindset. Our process started with a fresh look at all our pregnancy policies through the eyes of outside experts, including gender equity advocate Tina Tchen, to help guide us. As we started discussing existing regulations and industry practices, we realized we weren’t just talking about updating our policy. We were talking about changing our thinking.

Reconsider norms. We realized that the way current laws and regulations approached pregnancy didn’t really reflect the changes occurring in our employees’ lives. What’s on the books today — including the Americans with Disabilities Act, the Pregnancy Discrimination Act and the Family and Medical Leave Act — treats pregnancy like a disability, such as breaking a leg or hurting your back; they only require employers to provide accommodations when there is a proven inability to work, as verified by a physician. Most women have healthy experiences during their pregnancies and those are overlooked by these legislative guidelines.

Rethink compensation. Shifting our thinking on our employees’ experiences meant that we shifted how we approached pay. Companies in related industries provide light duty pay, at a reduced wage rate, for those with temporary disabilities who can work on premises, with appropriate modifications to work schedule and physical requirements. We decided not to reduce a pregnant employee’s hourly rate of pay, even if she needs to transition to an alternative work arrangement with lighter duties.

Don’t be afraid to go further. There’s no requirement for companies to provide paid time off at 100% of basic wage rate for family and medical-related leaves; FMLA protects the employee’s role for a defined period of time for qualifying situations, but provides no requirements related to pay. It made sense for us to allow for up to 20 days of paid time off to accommodate both basic health and wellness needs during a woman’s pregnancy, and any recovery that may be needed in the event of a loss of pregnancy.

The business logic behind the new policies that employers are putting in place is clear. For instance, a report from Boston Consulting Group lays out the case for change, highlighting how forward-thinking policies can improve employee morale, boost employee recruitment and retention, reduce turnover costs and help promote more diversity in leadership teams.

Having paid time off to prepare for, welcome and nurture a child shouldn’t be a privilege. It should be the way things are done. Virtually every other country in the world has recognized this; it’s time for the U.S. to do the same. Hopefully, this week’s proposed legislation will help with this initiative. But in the meantime, the onus will remain on companies themselves to step up.

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