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Paid leave for new parents: Is the US finally catching up?

Adobe became the third company in a week to roll out a new policy for paid parental leave. The US lags behind other countries in this respect, but talk of reform leaves many hopeful.

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    This June 16, 2005 file photo shows a view of Adobe Systems Inc. headquarters in San Jose, Calif. Adobe said on Monday that it will offer parents who are the primary caregivers 16 weeks of paid leave after the birth or adoption of a child. That's in addition to 10 weeks of paid medical leave following childbirth, so a new mother could take a total of 26 weeks off.
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It’s been a good week for new parents: Since Tuesday, three major corporations have amended their parental leave policies to lift pressure on employees struggling to balance work and life with a new baby.

On Monday, Adobe Systems, Inc. became the latest high-tech company to announce more generous parental leave periods, following announcements by Netflix and Microsoft. In a blog post, Senior Vice President of People and Places Donna Morris called the trend “an industry movement to better support our employees while striving towards increased workforce diversity.”

The new program, which will take effect in November, offers up to 16 weeks of fully paid leave for primary caregivers and 10 weeks of medical leave for childbirth, totaling 26 weeks for a birth mother who is her child’s primary caregiver, the post said. According to The Wall Street Journal, non-primary caregivers will receive up to 14 weeks of paid leave.

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“In the US, government mandates for paid leave are currently slim to nonexistent,” Ms. Morris said. “That means companies must navigate the tough balance between supporting employees during major life events and meeting business goals. Too often, employees have not had the support they need.”

Data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics say only 13 percent of full-time workers in the United States had access to paid family leave in 2012. Towers Watson benefit consultant Mary Tavarozzi told Reuters paid leave for American mothers usually lasts around a month. 

According to The New York Times, the United States is the only high-income country that does not have nationally mandated paid family leave. In contrast, workers in Britain are given up to a full year of mostly-paid family leave.

President Barack Obama has talked about closing this gap between the United States and its peers, the Times reported. In December, he began giving federal employees six weeks of paid family leave following the birth of a child.

“It’s time we stop treating childcare as a side issue or a women’s issue, and treat it like the national economic priority that it is,” he said in his State of the Union address in January.

Some studies have shown that the benefits of paid parental leave are tangible beyond the relief new parents experience at being able to focus on their children without worrying about money.

Research from the University of Virginia showed that in the second year of their children’s lives, mothers who took advantage of a paid family leave program in California were 6 percent more likely to be working again, and those who returned to their jobs were working 15-20 percent more hours and earning 5 percent higher hourly wages.

On the management side, the paid family leave program did not seem to hurt California businesses as some critics feared it would. A Center for Economic and Policy Research report said 89 to 99 percent of employers said the program had no negative effect on productivity, profitability, turnover, or morale and 87 percent said the program did not increase costs.

“For workers who use these programs, they are extremely beneficial,” Ruth Milkman, a City University of New York sociologist who co-authored the study, told the Times. “And the business lobby’s predictions about how these programs are really a big burden on employers are not accurate.”

Adobe’s parental leave changes have been in the works for some time, Morris told Reuters, and are independent of similar actions taken by Netflix and Microsoft.

“At Adobe, we often say that our most important assets leave the building at the end of the day,” Morris said in the blog post. “Our employees are our intellectual property and our future. Now we will better support all of them, across a spectrum of age, gender and experience, with a diverse mix of family needs and situations. The investment is unquestionably worth it.”

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