A detailed view of the undercarriage of the Virgin Atlantic Boeing 747 as it passes overhead at Gatwick airport in West Sussex on December 29, 2014 in London, England.
Jordan Mansfield—Getty Images
By Kenneth Matos
June 10, 2015
IDEAS
Kenneth Matos, Ph.D., is Senior Director of Research at Families and Work Institute.

One of Virgin’s company slogans is “breath of fresh airline.” Clearly the airlines’ news Wednesday that it was offering a year of paid maternal and paternal leave seems to be just that. Well, it probably won’t be a “breath of fresh airline” for most of the company’s employees, and it won’t do much to breathe fresh anything into the lack of substantial paid leave in the U.S.

The policy only applies to the about 140 employees who have worked for Virgin Management and are based in London and Geneva, and employees must have worked at least four years to receive their full salary during that time. In reality, it’s probably just an example of a company trying to keep some key employees from skydiving into the job market by making sure its benefits exceed the national standards. (The U.K. now mandates 52 weeks of partially paid leave that can be shared between spouses/partners.)

This isn’t the ground-breaking transformation of parental leave many want, especially not for the U.S., which has actually seen a decline in such leave. According to our research, only 58 % of employers in the U.S. provide any pay during maternity leave, while only 14% offer any pay during spouse/partner leaves (usually referred to as paternity leaves), and employers have become significantly less likely to provide full pay during leave for maternity-related disability between 2008 and 2014 (from 16% to 9%).

In addition, Virgin’s decision actually doesn’t even affect any U.S. employees at this time. So any hype in the U.S. is more wishful thinking than a game-changing new paradigm of work and life.

Or is it?

While U.S. policymakers and many U.S. citizens are unmoved by work-life policies overseas, large global companies are ever more concerned with creating work-life packages that make sense for all their employees. Both from a management standpoint (multiple policies are a ripe opportunity for lawsuits and extra administrative costs) and from a staffing standpoint (“No, I won’t relocate from London to Chicago and drop from 52 paid to 12 unpaid weeks of parental leave).

Research has shown that short maternity leaves are associated with various risk factors for the health of a new mother and baby. When fathers take shorter leaves, they are unavailable to help reduce these risk factors for mother and child. On the other hand, longer parental leaves, especially paid leaves, have been found to reduce depressive symptoms in new mothers, and increase the likelihood that a father will be involved in direct child care nine months after birth.

From an employer perspective, longer paid leaves have advantages as well. The Rutgers Center for Women and Work found that new mothers with paid leave were 93% more likely to be working at postpartum months nine to 12 than those who did not take any leave. This means a more robust talent market and better chances for women to stay on track with their careers, helping both organizations and families thrive.

Of all the companies to start experimenting with alternative policies, Virgin is a remarkably sensible choice. It has a history of bold moves and a transformational leader who has made strong public statements in support of flexibility. I expect it could also be fertile ground for cultural exchanges between employees.

Think about it: On a transatlantic flight, there’s a lot of time you don’t see flight attendants moving through the cabin. A lot of that time is just spent sitting and waiting for the next phase of the flight. What do you think they talk about during those times? I’m guessing family and life back on the ground is a big part of those conversations. It’s one thing to know that an anonymous colleague in an English branch of your company gets 52 weeks maternity leave and can share it with her spouse/partner. It’s another thing to listen to her talk about how wonderful her one year of paid leave was for seven hours.

Virgin is still a long way from having such a system mandated for all their flight attendants, baggage handlers, and other employees. Yet making their fairly limited policy so public still creates an opportunity to consider how it would work in broader practice. We’d all do well to watch how this plays out and push Virgin to keep to its brand as an experimental and ground-breaking company and to continue to expand this “breath of fresh airline” to ever more employees.

Kenneth Matos, Ph.D., is Senior Director of Research at Families and Work Institute and conducts research on a wide range of workforce and workplace issues, including paid leave, diversity, mentoring, work-life fit, and workplace effectiveness. He received his master’s in Industrial and Labor Relations from Cornell University and his Ph.D. in Industrial and Organizational Psychology at the George Washington University.

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