How Yearlong Paid Leave Works

Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation makes benefit available to all full-time employees

Allen Smith, J.D. By Allen Smith, J.D. May 17, 2018
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​The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation's benefit for new parents—52 weeks of paid leave—is in its infancy, just three years in existence, but it is popular with employees, some of whom are planning on using it a second time. The benefit goes well beyond any state paid-leave requirements.

Filling employees' positions during their time off is a carefully planned process, requiring a lot of communication to ensure that managers and employees feel supported and that work will get done while the employee is out, noted Steven Rice, chief human resources officer for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, headquartered in Seattle.

The program has been a resounding success from a retention and recruiting standpoint, with only two of the 222 participants deciding to leave the foundation to be at-home parents. "The rest have stayed and are highly engaged," Rice noted.

Paid leave was a natural priority for the organization, which advocates for children's health, he remarked. The benefit is available to all full-time employees for the first year following birth or adoption.

Because the foundation wants to support employees who are building families, it hasn't prohibited employees from using paid leave more than once. But Rice said that if the foundation sees a "concerning trend," it may then want to reconsider how many times workers can use the benefit.

Filling the job of someone on parental leave may involve an employee making a lateral move or several people taking on parts of a role.

Employees who want to use the benefit may be nervous approaching their managers about taking the time off, but the foundation wants to ensure they're comfortable doing so, Rice said.

Employees' Experiences

Jim Milne, a senior portfolio officer with the foundation, said he looked to HR for encouragement that he would still have a job after returning from his parental leave.

He'd returned from a two-month parental leave under the original benefit—which offered three months of parental leave—when the new benefit was announced. He took an additional four months under the new benefit.

The time off allowed him to be the primary caretaker while his wife was working. The leave strengthened his bond with his daughter, he said, and "transformed" their relationship.

When he returned to work, the foundation's needs had changed, and he was moved to a central strategy team to take on leadership duties overseeing the annual planning process. He came back with "a fresh set of eyes" and now is filling in for someone else on parental leave. So Milne has benefited from the program as a parent and as an employee.

He said he wouldn't hesitate to take a full year off if he and his wife have a second child. "I'm heartened to see the way the foundation took care of the transition," he said, calling the paid time off "such an incredible opportunity."

Lavina Bhagat, an HR professional at the foundation, called her year off with her son "an amazing experience." She wasn't sure when she was pregnant if she wanted to take the full year off, but her manager said no decision had to be made about the timing until Bhagat was on leave. Once she was on leave, it was clear to Bhagat that she didn't want to return to work early.

"As my child grew, he became more fun and engaging, and I loved being part of that. I didn't want to leave that," she said.

Bhagat kept in touch with her manager about changes at the foundation during her time off. The reality is that the role someone returns to may not be entirely the same as the one the person leaves, she noted. For instance, when Bhagat went on leave, she had been an HR business partner supporting a division at the foundation. When she returned, she was supporting a different division.

Bhagat plans this summer to take a year off after the birth of her second child.

Paid-Leave Requirements

While the Family and Medical Leave Act's 12 weeks of leave are unpaid, a few states have limited paid-leave requirements in addition to the growing patchwork of paid-sick-leave laws.

[SHRM members-only toolkit: Managing Family and Medical Leave]

There currently are paid-parental-leave mandates only in California, New Jersey, New York and Rhode Island, wrote Trina Le Riche, an attorney with Ogletree Deakins in Kansas City, Mo.; Kelly Hughes, an Ogletree Deakins attorney in Charlotte, N.C.; and Matthew Johnson, an Ogletree Deakins attorney in Greenville, S.C., in an e-mail. Washington, D.C., and Washington state will require paid family leave in the future.

San Francisco has passed a paid-parental-leave ordinance, noted Michelle Barrett Falconer, an attorney with Littler in San Francisco.

"By and large, any pay during leave is through the states," said Jonathan Barker, an attorney with Sheppard Mullin in Los Angeles.

"While the Society for Human Resource Management's (SHRM's) National Study of Employers confirms a growing number of employers are voluntarily offering paid leave for new parents, the Gates Foundation plan is certainly more generous than most," said Lisa Horn, SHRM's director of congressional affairs. She went on to note that SHRM supports efforts to assist employees in meeting the dual demands of work and personal needs and believes that employers should be encouraged to voluntarily offer paid leave to their employees.

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