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An Expanding View of Paid Leave

Employers are becoming more flexible about time off and are even introducing new categories of paid leave for employees.


​After Lori Chew's granddaughter was born two years ago, she planned to use paid vacation time to help care for the baby when her daughter-in-law returned to work.

Her boss had another idea: Take "grandparent" leave.

Directors at the private Benedictine College in Atchison, Kan., where Chew is an administrative assistant, developed the new category of paid time off within a larger package of family-friendly benefits, says human resources director Patrick S. VanKirk. Eligible employees may take three paid days of leave after the birth or adoption of a grandchild, for up to two grandchildren per calendar year.

"I never heard of it. I never would have even thought that anybody would give grandparents leave," says Chew, who jumped at the chance. "It's a good idea."

Many other employers have established their own priorities about the types of paid leave that will best support their workers. For example:

  • AnalogFolk, a creative agency with offices in New York City, offers one day of paid menstrual leave per month to employees who experience complications during their periods.
  • Canva, a Sydney, Australia-based digital design company with offices in California and Texas, recently approved a policy that grants up to eight weeks of "gender affirmation" leave so that nonbinary and transgender employees can take time off for physical or mental health needs.
  • To prevent burnout, some companies are offering paid sabbatical leave to highly skilled, long-serving employees—the type of perk typically offered to professors in the academic world.
  • Some businesses, particularly those that cater to pet owners, are granting paid "pawternity" leave to employees who have adopted an animal, to allow the owner and new pet time to adjust. 

Loosening the Valves

Not all U.S. employers have carved out new forms of paid-leave categories—only 24 percent of private sector workers have access to employer-provided paid family leave at all, according to the Congressional Research Service. But some company leaders are accomplishing the same goals by making existing policies more flexible, benefits professionals say.

Now, for example, employers are increasingly including grandparents in the types of parental or child "bonding" leave that previously were the sole domain of new parents or partners. This recognizes the realities that the nuclear family is harder to define today and that a significant portion of the U.S. workforce has gotten older, one expert says.

"Everyone was expecting a mass exodus [from the workforce] with the Baby Boomer population, and it hasn't happened," says Maria M. Trapenasso, SHRM-SCP, senior vice president and national practice leader of human capital solutions for NFP, a benefits broker. "Employers really do need to pay attention to whether or not this [type of leave] is something that could be beneficial for their employees."

 ‘Once the pandemic hit, employees actually started asking for what they needed. The new generation coming in is demanding it.’
Maria M. Trapenasso, SHRM-SCP

Meanwhile, employers face a changing regulatory landscape, with a patchwork of state laws that require them to provide certain types of paid or unpaid medical, family or bereavement leave.

For example, Illinois recently joined Nevada and Maine in mandating that employers provide a capped amount of annual paid leave for any reason. Illinois calls its measure the Paid Leave for All Workers Act, although independent contractors and union construction workers and delivery drivers are exempted. Also, employers and workers in Cook County and the city of Chicago are covered by local paid sick-leave ordinances, not the new Illinois statute.

Even as state laws develop, many companies across the U.S. have adjusted their paid-leave policies voluntarily, industry professionals say. Employers are credited with having become more understanding and empathetic following the COVID-19 pandemic and the emotional toll it took on workers and their families.

"That just threw us into another world altogether," Trapenasso says. "Once the pandemic hit, employees actually started asking for what they needed. The new generation coming in is demanding it."

Not surprisingly, policies that govern paid bereavement leave have undergone a noticeable transformation. A recent survey from Marsh McLennan Agency indicates that employers are becoming more generous with the amount of paid time off a worker may take, which traditionally has been three to five days. Relationships that trigger bereavement leave have become broader, too, to include deceased individuals beyond an employee's "immediate" family members. Some policies have widened to include women who have had miscarriages, stillbirths or failed IVF procedures.

For worst-case scenarios in which an employee dies or becomes disabled or terminally ill, some employers have engaged "concierge"-style service providers who will convey benefits on behalf of a company, says Marsh McLennan Agency senior consultant Luba Pale.

Counselors from the Bay Area firm TenCode, for example, will speak with beneficiaries by phone or Zoom and work with them on challenges including funeral planning, securing life insurance payouts and phasing out a loved one's digital presence, managing partner Rob Combi says.

"Post-COVID, I think there's been a big push by HR leadership to let their employees and families know they care about them," Combi says.

 ‘Offering people family-friendly policies and leave can engender loyalty for a long time to come.’
Pam Cohen

Even pets have made their way into the bereavement space. Between 3 and 5 percent of large employers that responded to the Marsh McLennan Agency survey said they offer paid leave for the death of a pet, though some bosses define which animals may qualify, Pale notes.

"It could be a dog, a cat, a bird, a farm animal," she says. "It's not a going to be a fish, for example, or a lizard."

Pets also are tucked away in a very small percentage of "caregiver" leave policies, which typically require employees to offer medical documentation from a veterinary office, Pale says.

A Question of Approach

Some employers clearly are seeking to make a statement by creating new types of leave categories for certain employees. Specialists have mixed feelings about the approach, however well-intentioned.

AnalogFolk has publicized its period leave policy and encouraged other companies to follow suit in hopes that it will help de-stigmatize menstruation. Spain recently became the first European country to grant women menstrual leave if their periods become incapacitating. Critics say the measure, which is publicly financed, could end up reinforcing negative gender stereotypes.

Canva, the company that offers gender affirmation leave and other benefits for nonbinary and transgender employees, has emphasized its goal of being inclusive. And Salt Lake City-based HireVue, a digital hiring platform that offers up to one week of paid grandparent leave, is likewise highlighting a particular viewpoint that employers "value family time and our team members at all different stages in life," according to Chief People Officer Natalie Dopp.

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Some professionals caution that companies launching new categories of leave could create potential legal problems or, at the very least, harm workplace morale if certain employees feel left out.

"There is little to no case law finding these kinds of leaves to be discriminatory," says employment lawyer Jeff Nowak, co-chair of the leave and accommodations practice group at Littler Mendelson P.C.'s Chicago office. "I would expect the courts to generally give employers that flexibility to decide how they distribute paid time off."

Still, Nowak says, it may be better for companies to add flexibility to existing leave instead of creating stand-alone categories. He says this strategy would dovetail with the way state governments such as Illinois seem to be mandating overarching paid leave requirements for all employees and not specific categories of workers.

"We're going to see increased activity in that area," Nowak says.

Trapenasso, the senior vice president at NFP, agrees that it's preferable for employers to be more flexible with paid leave. She says companies that roll out a special category should be prepared to educate their employees on why they're implementing it.

"There has to be some type of level playing field," Trapenasso says. "When we keep carving these things out, unless we're going to consider how other employees are affected and how we can make it equal for them as well, then I think employers may be missing the mark."

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The spottiness of paid parental leave in the U.S. surprises some observers. The country lags behind many of its global peers in granting paid time off for all working parents or partners. But the benefit is gaining popularity among workers. And in 2020, the U.S. Office of Personnel Management instituted a leave policy that grants federal civilian employees up to 12 weeks of paid time off upon the birth, adoption or fostering of a child.

The ability to take up to 12 weeks of unpaid parental leave is a hallmark of the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA), which became law 30 years ago. But since then, federal lawmakers have not advanced a national policy for a paid version of that protected leave.

A half-dozen states build upon FMLA leave, with some expanding on the time off for parents or requiring paid time off for them, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. But less than one-quarter of U.S. workers overall have access to paid parental leave.

This is a glaring problem to Pam Cohen, chief research and analytics officer for the Mom Project, a jobs platform that advocates for greater support, including paid parental leave, for working families.

“Offering people family-friendly policies and leave can engender loyalty for a long time to come,” Cohen says. “People who get it often say they can be much more productive because they’re not constantly worried about how they’re going to make the time work.”

Overseas, parents can look forward to several weeks of paid leave. One of Europe’s most generous countries, Sweden, grants each parent eight months of paid time off (single parents get double that amount). South Korea, facing a declining birth rate, has expanded paid parental leave to 18 months for each parent. In Africa, where policies vary dramatically from country to country, Nigeria offers working mothers 12 weeks off at 50 percent of their pay, while fathers can receive two to three weeks off.

Back in the U.S., a recent Marsh McLennan Agency survey suggests that employers are more receptive to granting paid parental or bonding leave and even expanding the benefit if they currently offer it. Six weeks of paid leave was the median duration, although 28 percent of respondents said they offer 12 weeks or more.

Cohen’s organization stresses the need for benefits beyond paid parental leave, which only covers the front end of childrearing. Also important are family support systems such as breast-pumping accommodations, access to affordable child care and flexible time off, Cohen says.

“Parenthood is a marathon, it’s not a sprint,” she says. “Companies need to be adaptive and be able to offer benefits at every stage.” —M.R.


Mike Ramsey is a Chicago-based freelance writer.


Explore Further

SHRM provides information and research to help business leaders to offer employees paid leave when they need to take time away from work.

SHRM Resource Hub Page: Paid Time Off
With tough competition for talent, progressive company leaders are rethinking how to attract and keep employees. Offering an assortment of paid leave benefits can help employees better balance work and life. Employers can use these resources to discover ways to offer popular paid leave benefits to employees.

Maine Enacts Sweeping Paid Family and Medical Leave Law
Maine recently enacted one of the broadest and most generous paid family and medical leave programs in the country. The law provides up to 12 weeks of paid leave per year to all eligible employees in the private and public sector.

HR Q&A: Is There a Tax Credit for Employers that Offer Paid Family and Medical Leave?
Employers that voluntarily offer qualifying employees up to 12 weeks of paid family and medical leave annually under a written policy may claim a tax credit for a portion of the wages paid during that leave. Originally set to expire at the end of 2019, the tax credit has been extended through 2025.

Parental, Family Leave Programs See Boost in 2023 SHRM Employee Benefits Survey
Significant strides have been made in parental and family leave benefit programs over the past year, signaling that employers are getting serious about supporting employees in their home lives as well as their work lives, according to the 2023 SHRM Employee Benefits Survey.

2023 SHRM Employee Benefits Survey
Explore the results of SHRM's 2023 Employee Benefits survey for detailed information on the various benefits employers are offering today.

SHRM Toolkit: Managing Family and Medical Leave
The purpose of the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) is to mandate that certain large employers provide a balance between the demands of the workplace and the needs of families by providing job-protected, unpaid leave to eligible employees. This toolkit addresses topics most often encountered when an employer needs to determine whether an employee is entitled to family or medical leave under the FMLA.

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