Why you should care

American companies are increasingly offering paid time off to new parents.

Tucked away near a winding river in the woods of Gilsum, New Hampshire, sits the headquarters of natural skincare company Badger Balm. Outside the windows is a picturesque landscape filled with rustic New England meadows and trees. Other than the view, Badger’s offices are like any other — cubicles, glowing computer screens — but with one small difference: the tiny baby asleep in the corner.

Babies might not be ubiquitous office decor yet, but at Badger they’re the norm. Under the firm’s “Babies at Work” program, employees can bring their infants to work from ages 3-6 months, or until they start crawling. The firm is part of a broader trend spreading across America. As late as 2007, only 70 American companies allowed employees to bring in their babies, says Carla Moquin, from the Parenting in the Workplace Institute (PIWI), which provides resources for setting up Babies at Work programs. Today, that number has almost trebled to 200. And allowing employees to bring kids to work is just part of a broader shift in family policies that U.S. companies increasingly are employing — to respond to staffing needs, and also to keep pace with rival firms moving in this direction.

In 2014, Change.org increased its parental leave from between five and 12 weeks in the U.S. to 18 weeks for all staff, becoming one of the first American companies to offer this benefit. Walmart, which has received criticism for poor employee benefits in the past, recently increased its maternity leave for birth mothers to 16 weeks. Soon after, Starbucks increased benefits too. Both companies have stated that the recent changes in U.S. tax law allow them to offer this benefit, but low unemployment has made it more difficult to hire hourly workers. Giving paid time off to new parents is one way to stay competitive.

People love seeing the babies.

Emily Hall Warren, Badger Balm

The U.S. is a rare country without national paid parental leave, but family-centric work cultures have been shown to recruit and retain more employees. When an employer shows they value family, women are more dedicated to their job, according to data from company ratings site Fairygodboss. This includes some length of paid parental leave, but it also means the company supports taking vacations, giving the option to work from home or reimbursing some child care expenses. Research also shows that both men and women who are offered paid family leave are more productive at work and stay at their company longer.

Companies that go a step further and let babies come to work are attractive propositions for a growing number of job seekers — across the private and public sectors. Since launching its Infants at Work program in 2015, the Washington State Department of Health (DOH) has attracted more hires. “I know employees who have chosen to work for this organization specifically because of this option,” says Courtney Dutra, part of the government agency’s human resources team.

So far, they’ve had 55 babies participate, and Dutra says the policy has resonated with both parents and non-parents. That’s been the experience elsewhere too, as options similar to what the Washington State DOH offers pick up. When Badger Balm started its Babies at Work program, some people were worried it would be a distraction. But those fears quickly dissipated. “People love seeing the babies,” says Emily Hall Warren, the company’s director of administration. “Everyone gets to know the little person and their personality.” The company also gives five weeks of paid parental leave for the primary caregiver and the option to take up to an additional six months off, unpaid. Moquin of PIWI says clients have told her that in some cases it “saved them several hundred thousand dollars in terms of [employee] retention.”

Even without allowing babies in the office, a generous parental leave policy is an attractive option to workers. “I can’t imagine not having that time to spend with my son,” says Lacey Severin, from Change.org, who participated in the company’s 18-week parental leave program last year. Pointing to the support she received from the organization, she says, “It made me confident I could have a career and be a mom.”

But it’s not just social justice–centered organizations offering longer family leave. Walmart (which has been the subject of more than one petition on Change.org calling for improved worker benefits) enhanced its leaves starting March 1, 2018. Birth mothers get 16 weeks of total paid time off, an increase from six-to-eight weeks, and dads and adopting parents now get six weeks of paid leave, where they weren’t entitled to any time off before. Walmart representative Erica Jones says the new policy is about providing stability for employees, “which ultimately leads to economic mobility and a better quality of life.”

At Starbucks, birth mothers used to receive 67 percent of their pay for six weeks of leave. Now, all employees who work at least 20 hours a week are entitled to full pay for six weeks. Birth mothers employed at the corporate level get paid leave for up to 18 weeks.

Despite the steps individual companies are taking, nationally mandated parental paid leave is not likely anytime soon. “I am not optimistic,” Moquin says. The Trump administration has discussed putting a national six-week paid Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) in place and has proposed raising payroll taxes, paying into Social Security or using state unemployment insurance programs to fund it. In Warren’s opinion, though, “that is not a genuine paid FMLA.” One alternative is to require businesses to cover the cost, a proposal supported by several organizations including the National Partnership for Women & Families.

Either way, there’s no ignoring that family-centric policies at work are becoming increasingly important to Americans, and often it’s a win-win for both worker and employer. “These [policies] contribute to parents feeling really grateful and loyal to these companies in the long term,” Moquin says. In a survey from Fairygodboss, one ADP employee said, after 13 years with the payroll processing firm, “I have not ever missed anything for my children … which makes me run through brick walls for ADP.”

From local businesses to giant corporations, U.S. companies are finally recognizing that.

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