New paid leave policy may be smartest perk for families yet

The race to attract and retain millennial workers nearing parenting age has gone from exciting to a bit exaggerated. Over the past couple of years, progressive companies trying to one-up their competitors have lavished ever more lengthy or creative paid parental leave programs on their employees. New moms and dads get 18 weeks at Google. Etsy employees - moms and dads, birth parents or adoptive - get a full six months. At Netflix, theoretically, employees can take off a new child's entire first year.

Yet a new policy announced last week by Deloitte, which offers U.S. employees 16 weeks of paid "family leave," may be the smartest benefit yet. It isn't the longest policy out there. But it appears to be among the broadest, allowing not only new parents but any Deloitte employee with family caregiving responsibilities to dip into the generous perk.

Here's why the program is such a smart idea, at least in concept. Longer and longer parental leave perks benefit only a subset of workers: Those who've just welcomed a crying, all-consuming newborn into their lives, or in some cases, adopted a child of their own. That disproportionately benefits young employees, and if too many new perks are designed to lure in the younger set, employers could see resentment from older workers.

Even more important: It has the potential to "normalize" caregiving, making it OK for single people, men, senior executives - anyone - to take a block of time off to care for an ailing family member or a new child. Young women face potential bias when they're hired or promoted, as managers - often unconsciously - worry they could soon take months off to care for a new baby. As a result, companies are creating more and more gender-neutral parental leave programs that let new dads or non-birth parents take off long blocks, too, an attempt to both extend parents' time with their baby before child care begins and put young women and men on a more level playing field.

By making a similar amount of family leave available to everyone - not just parents - Deloitte is taking that idea a step further. At least in theory, it's just as possible that the 45-year-old single guy whose elderly mother has Alzheimer's could ask for several months off as it is that a 35-year-old woman who is pregnant could. That could help change the calculus managers do when thinking about whom to hire or advance, since older workers and men could also use the time. And if more senior managers take advantage of the policy themselves, it could help them better understand the challenges their employees face when they step out of the workforce for a period of time. "The thing I think is really different about Deloitte's [policy] is its inclusiveness," said Kenneth Matos, vice president of research for the workplace consultancy Life Meets Work.

The program works like this: Deloitte employees have access to 16 weeks of paid "family leave" a year, covering things like elder care responsibilities, caring for a spouse or family member who is ill, or, of course, the birth or adoption of a child. New mothers also can take six to eight weeks of paid short-term disability leave on top of the family leave benefit. Employees have access to the benefit each year - meaning they could be out for a child's birth one year and take a few weeks for an elderly parent's care the following year. And they can use the benefit as they need, working just three or four days a week for several months, taking the full 16 weeks at one time, or taking a few weeks at different points in the year.

Deloitte is not the first company to offer family leave, of course. All employees who work for a place with more than 50 employees and have been employed there for 12 months have to be offered three months of leave through the Family Medical Leave Act - but this is almost universally unpaid. A few states have mandated paid family leave, and more could be coming.

"You're going to see more of this," says Bruce Elliott, a human resources executive who led compensation and benefits for SHRM until recently. "Even Republicans in Congress are starting to talk about it."

Meanwhile, a report from the Society for Human Resource Management says 18 percent of companies offer some kind of paid family leave benefit, and the majority of those who offered it included care for immediate family members such as an elderly parent or a sick child. A report by the Families and Work Institute in 2014 found that some three-quarters of employers say they offer some time off for elder care.

Yet human resources experts say the latter benefit tends to be unpaid and informal - at the discretion of a manager, for example - and that those companies that do offer paid family leave don't offer anything as generous as 16 weeks. They also don't tend to structure it like Deloitte has, putting the benefit in the same bucket that all employees can draw from. "I have not heard of a company that has this degree of integration in their caregiving setup," Matos said.

Introducing a generous leave program that includes all kinds of caregiving isn't going to make changes overnight to the stigma that can come with taking a long maternity leave. But it could be a first step toward making the practice of caregiving less attached to employees of a certain gender or a certain age.

In the right culture, one that truly supports giving workers time for their personal lives, a lengthy parental leave is no doubt a sought after, welcomed perk that helps families and children start their lives together. But workers struggle to care for their families at many other times in their lives, too. The race shouldn't just be about who can offer the most time off - weeks and months that not all employees will feel they're really able to use. It should be a race to see who can get the most people to take time off - and therefore make doing so a little more normal.

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