As baby leaves go gender-neutral, dads get time off

September 14, 2016 5:13 PM EDT

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By Beth Pinsker

NEW YORK (Reuters) - When Brian Cooksey joined a tech startup as a software developer in 2011, he was not thinking about the benefits package, especially not the parental leave policy - and neither was the company.

And when Cooksey became the first employee at Zapier to expect a child, management came to him for feedback on what the policy should be.

"They said, 'We're looking at 14 weeks of paid leave, what do you think?,' I remember thinking, 'Do they really mean weeks?!'" says Cooksey, 30, who has three children, ages 11, five and 13 months and lives in Columbia, Missouri.

After his second child was born, his previous employer only gave him 14 days of parental leave.

What changed in the meantime time was a key decision by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in 2014 that mandated all leaves be treated the same, beyond the birth of a child qualifying for medical short-term disability.

So any "bonding" time has to now be offered equally to birth mothers, fathers and adoptive parents - or even those caring for other family members.

Also some state laws, such as in California and New Jersey, now mandate paid family leave. More states are adopting similar policies.

In 2015, companies started to announce new offerings, too, says Brian Gifford, director of research and measurement at the Integrated Benefits Institute, a nonprofit research group.

Although just 3 percent of the tech workforce has a child under the age of 1, companies want push the envelope because they are in such competition to get and keep employees, according to the organization's research. "The numbers of who is going to take it doesn't matter so much. They want to be supportive of their workers," Gifford says.

In other sectors, there is still work to do on parental leave policies, particularly for men. Human resources at one power company wanted to put a gender-neutral parental leave policy in place, but the pitch to the CEO did not go so well, says Rich Fuerstenberg, a senior partner at the benefits consultant Mercer.

"I'm not paying for a dude to have a baby" was the feedback, Fuerstenberg notes.

Overall, the U.S. lags in paternity leave policies among leading economies around the world. According to Mercer's 2015 survey on Absence and Disability Management, only 25 percent of companies surveyed offered paid leave after the birth of a child, with companies like Google, Microsoft and Netflix leading the way with their generous benefits highly publicized.

But plan designs vary widely.

One company Fuerstenberg knows provides 16 weeks of leave, but it has to be consecutive - if you come back early, your eligibility ends.

Another offers 12 weeks, but you can come and go three separate times. Still others allow new parents to take a leave within the first year, but it does not have to be immediately, so two working parents could stagger their respective leave dates.

Employees also need to note that "paid" leave may not mean you get your full salary, says Brenna Shebel, director of healthcare costs and delivery for the National Business Group on Health, a non-partisan research group.

"More commonly, we're seeing 60 percent income replacement for parental leave and disability," Shebel says.

THE UPTAKE

Just making a policy is half the battle. The uptake rate for fathers taking leave depends on the messaging they get from their companies and they examples they see, says Shebel.

"The easiest thing is to have leadership walk the walk," adds Mercer's Fuerstenberg, noting the impact Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg made with his parental leave.

Getting the human resources team up to speed certainly helps. When Mike Schaffer, an executive a communications firm Edelman in Washington, went to talk to his HR department about paternity leave options, there was a binder full of information.

"To be honest, there weren't a lot of fathers in my company that were role models. But I was able to take a full month off, which was encouraged and fully supported," says Schaffer, who also blogs about his three kids, ages three, five and three months. (http://thebestdadblog.com)

At first, Cooksey doubted whether his company's offer was sincere, but they persisted with encouragement. "Being the first one, I did think I should take it because it will set the precedent," he says.

Three other dads-to-be at the company have since come to him with questions. Cooksey tells them: "Don't be afraid to take the whole thing and unplug. Really unplug. You'll be OK, and you'll be happy you did."

(Editing by Lauren Young, G Crosse)



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