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Phased Parental Leave Enhances Family Benefits

A phase-out, phase-back approach can make new parents' lives easier

A woman working at her computer with a baby in her lap.

updated October 22, 2018

Noodles & Company, known for serving up fast, casual pasta dishes, is launching an innovative benefit that allows expectant mothers and mothers who have recently given birth to phase out of work and then back in while receiving full salary. Given the trend of U.S. companies expanding parental leave benefits, other employers could copy this approach to attract and retain talent, benefits advisors said.

Starting next year, eligible new mothers at Noodles & Company, in addition to receiving six weeks of paid maternity leave, can work an 80 percent schedule during the four weeks before and the four weeks after maternity leave while receiving full pay. The benefit is available to assistant general managers and above who work full time.

Eligible fathers and other nonbirth parents receive two weeks of paternity/bonding leave.

The company provides additional parental benefits for eligible employees, such as reimbursement for breast milk shipments during business travel and adoption assistance of up to $10,000 per child.

Shortly after the Noodles & Company announcement, tobacco firm Reynolds American Inc. announced a revised parental leave policy that offers 16 weeks of fully paid leave for employees who are new mothers or fathers and the ability to take up to eight months of a flexible work arrangement. The policy applies to all regular, full-time employees, including salaried and hourly workers, following the birth or permanent placement of a child.

Taken in full, the policy provides up to one full year of support for parents to bond with, and care for, their new child, while continuing to balance their professional goals, the company said.

Other employers also allow new parents to reduce their workload before and after taking parental leave. In May, national law firm Schiff Hardin announced a "ramp up/down policy" that reduces working hours for expectant parents by 20 percent during the month before and after their parental leave, with no reduction in salary. The firm also provides a "mindful return" online course that helps parents successfully transition back to work after taking leave, and—like Noodles & Company—a service that helps nursing mothers store and ship breast milk when they travel for work.

Benefits of Phased Leave

U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) research shows that after giving birth, 1 in 9 women experience postpartum depression, sleep deprivation and difficulty managing breast-feeding. "Transitioning to and from maternity leave can be a difficult time for mothers," said Dave Boennighausen, chief executive officer of Noodles & Company, in a statement that referenced the CDC's findings. Gradually returning to work allows mothers time to balance their work and personal lives, he noted.

[SHRM members-only guide: How to Develop and Administer Paid Leave Programs]

Time Off for Bonding

Earlier this year, retail giant Walmart expanded its parental leave policy to provide both salaried and full-time hourly workers in the U.S. with 10 weeks of paid maternity leave for birth mothers and six weeks of paid leave for other new parents. The retailer also helps employees with adoption expenses of up to $5,000 per child, available to full-time hourly and salaried workers.

Walmart's full-time hourly workers had previously received up to eight weeks of maternity leave at half pay, with no parental leave benefit for fathers or partners.

Effective Jan. 1, 2019, General Mills is increasing fully paid time off for new birth mothers to 18-20 weeks, and parental leave (for fathers, partners and adoptive parents) to 12 weeks. To help the needs of employees at all life stages, General Mills is also introducing or improving caregiver leave, bereavement and short-term disability benefits. These new benefits apply to both salaried and non-union production workers in the U.S. 

In comparison, the average length of fully paid parental leave offered to full-time employees is 4.1 weeks, according to WorldatWork's May 2017 report, Survey of Paid Parental Leave in the United States.

Beware Discriminatory Policies

Employers that provide paid child-bonding leave should review their policies "to determine whether they apply similarly or differently to men and women, and to natural parents, adoptive parents and same-sex couples," advised John Litchfield, senior counsel at law firm Foley & Lardner in Chicago.

If a bonding-time policy applies differently to different categories of parents who fall within a protected status, either at the federal or the state level, "then the policy may invite a claim of disparate treatment on the basis of sex, sexual orientation, familial relations or some other protected category," Litchfield said.

Employers can distinguish medical leave for new mothers' child delivery and recovery from child-bonding time, offering the latter to mothers and nonbirth parents equally, he noted.

A Coveted Perk

Most U.S. workers (58 percent) want paid family leave from their employers, including 64 percent of Millennials, benefits provider Unum reports. In a poll of 1,227 working U.S. adults conducted in July, paid family leave outranked other popular perks such as flexible and remote working options and student loan repayment assistance.

"It's not surprising that paid family leave is the most coveted work perk," said Michelle Jackson, assistant vice president of regional market development at Unum. "A generous leave policy can lead to higher levels of employee engagement and a competitive edge to recruit and retain top talent."


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