I never thought I’d be the person who won paid family leave at my company.
In 2013, I was 25 and embracing my role working at a media company in New York City. I was young and had no plans to have children anytime soon. Sheryl Sandberg’s “Lean In” had just come out and I devoured it, eager to learn how I could catapult my career. But one of the most striking things that I learned in the book is that the United States is the only developed country in the world without a national paid family leave policy to support people who need to care for new or sick family members.
I found it so shocking I actually thought it might not be true. The United States doesn’t offer any kind of paid leave? How could that be? I couldn’t understand how this wasn’t something more people were advocating for. I immersed myself in learning about the benefits of paid leave — and the positive impact it has on gender equality, child and maternal health and the economy.
Over 43 million people provided care for a child or sick family member in 2015, and the lack of paid family leave is forcing people — disproportionately low-income workers — out of the workforce. And, of course, you won’t be shocked to learn that the majority of caregiving is done by women. By 2018, women are expected to make up 46.9% of the workforce. Ignoring this issue is no longer an option.
When Netflix announced it would offer up to one year of paid leave for its employees I thought, “Wow, that’s a company making a difference.” I wanted my company to take a stand on the issue, too. I shouldn’t have to choose between my professional goals and having children.
When I discussed the issue with friends, we all agreed it was a problem. But the consensus always seemed to be: “It’s not like we could do anything to change it.” But, could we? Why weren’t we pushing to do more?
My chance to do more came this year. When interviewing for a great new job at a small tech company in New Jersey, I found out that they didn’t have a paid family leave policy. To say I was disappointed would be an understatement. I accepted the position, but made it clear from the start that paid family leave should be a priority for them.
Months later, when the company still had no imminent plans to implement a paid leave policy, I decided it was time for me to take a seat at the table. I spent hours with a colleague, Christina Christ, researching the business benefits of a paid leave policy. I looked into what similar companies and the state were offering. While New Jersey is one of the few states that requires companies to offer paid leave, it only mandates six weeks. Some of my friends who have children struggled physically for eight weeks after they gave birth, so I knew six weeks wasn’t enough.
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Christina and I debated whether we would be generous or conservative with our proposal. While we couldn’t compete with the Netflix and Facebooks of the world, we didn’t want to settle for a consolation policy. Go big or go home, right? We wanted to implement an inclusive paid leave policy plan that covered all employees — men and women — at all levels equally.
Because our company has an open-door policy, I had been publicly discussing the idea of making this a reality for a few months. So when I approached our leadership, they were already supportive and weren’t caught off guard.
We went into the meeting proposing 16 weeks of fully-funded paid leave for both new mothers and fathers, fully knowing that it would be a stretch for a small business that was still scaling. We also wanted to make sure employees who had to care for sick family members benefitted under the policy. At the meeting, I presented a proposal that included benefits to their business and reminded the mostly male board that having a paid family leave policy in place aligned with the company’s core value: “We want you to make a life, not just a living.” With human resources and the CEO in the room, we addressed concerns, rollout plans and the logistics of how we’d implement it. It was received with open arms.
We ended up getting close to 80% of our initial proposal, with a new policy that covers paid leave for new mothers and fathers, as well as care for sick family members. The policy also offers employees the flexibility to return-to-work gradually. Once the company’s leadership was on board with the plan, it was sent to legal for review. I can’t wait for our team of 40 to have access to it later this year.
Even if you aren’t a manager at your company, you can make an impact when it comes to pushing for paid family leave. I’m now working as a volunteer coach with the non-profit PL+US (Paid Leave for the US), which has a new program to support and train other people who want to create paid family policies in their workplaces.
Here are some of my tips for making the case to your employer:
- Explain why the policy benefits the business. Paid family leave policy is a great investment. It reduces employee turnover, boosts morale and increases productivity. Sharing the business benefits can decrease hesitation.
- Know the law. Federal and state provisions can be a bit confusing. Familiarize yourself with the laws in your state so you can figure out if your business is complying.
- Get detailed. In our proposal, we outlined every single detail: the provisions of the policy, which employees were eligible, the timeframes, and so on. By having a clear policy that addresses every single potential implementation question, you’ll be more likely to avoid delays and quell concerns from managers.
- Find an ally or two. There’s strength in numbers, and the more people in a company who demand change, the more likely superiors are to listen. Plus, working together with Christina and other colleagues just made the proposal stronger.
- Seek out support from managers. If you’re lower on the company’s food-chain, it’s invaluable to get managers on your side to help get your cause on the radar of the higher-ups. Pick one or two you trust and sell them on the plan first. I sought out the support of directors on my team, who helped me make executives more receptive to sitting down with me.
- Follow up. At the end of each meeting, put a date on the calendar to revisit the proposal. Executives juggle a lot of responsibilities so scheduling follow-ups is key to making progress.
- Be willing to compromise. Don’t draw a line in the sand. Even if a company isn’t able to offer employees the number of weeks you’re pushing for, there are many other successful ways to give new parents similar benefits that your bosses might be more receptive toward. Try suggesting a gradual return-to-work schedule or other perks like daycare discounts.