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posted: 10/11/2020 6:20 AM

Employers are finally offering paid parental leave, but working moms are afraid to use it

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  • More than 75 percent of working parents say their employers have offered parents no leave or subsidized child care during the pandemic. For parents who are offered leave, the fear of taking it can be potent.

    More than 75 percent of working parents say their employers have offered parents no leave or subsidized child care during the pandemic. For parents who are offered leave, the fear of taking it can be potent.
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Most countries have long recognized that parental leave is good for the economy.

For new parents, 119 nations offer at least 12 weeks of paid leave. Nine offer more than a year. In some countries, parental leave isn't limited to the parents of newborns: In Sweden, parents can take 16 months of paid leave anytime until their child turns 8.

As a parent in the United States, you're promised none of this. As the only industrialized country that mandates no paid maternity or paternity leave when a child is born, the United States leaves parents to fend for themselves. While many companies choose to provide their employees with paid leave, corporate policies tend to be far more limited than what's on offer in other countries, often entirely leaving out workers in lower-paid jobs.

The novel coronavirus has forced American employers to prioritize the needs of parents: With kids largely still at home, many parents can't be fully present for much of the traditional workday. Some employers are allowing flexible work schedules, paying for tutoring services and, in what is perhaps the most significant corporate shift, allowing time for parental leave. Some big tech companies are offering up to 15 weeks of paid leave for employees to care for children or elderly relatives, with others designating a certain number of hours each pay period as "caregiving time."

Changes at even a few U.S. companies could set an important precedent. If parents get used to taking paid leave for child care -- realizing that their companies can afford these kinds of benefits -- employers will have a hard time walking back these policies after the pandemic, said Martha Gimbel, a labor market expert who specializes in gender and the economy. But that will happen only if employees actually utilize the time off. In a country where paid parental leave still isn't fully baked into corporate culture, parents can be hesitant to take it, worried about backlash.

These benefits are offered only to a lucky few. The U.S. government mandated 12 weeks of paid leave in March for parents with children at home as part of an emergency coronavirus relief package, but that benefit excluded at least half of all workers, and has been utilized by few.

More than 75 percent of working parents say their employers have offered parents no leave or subsidized child care during the pandemic, according to a recent Morning Consult survey by The New York Times. The employees with access to these benefits are mostly highly skilled and highly educated, working for companies where they have significant bargaining power.

For parents who are offered leave, the fear of taking it can be potent. This is especially true for women, who inevitably shoulder the vast majority of the child-care responsibilities. In interviews with eight women who have been offered some form of parental leave during the pandemic, most said they chose to take far less than they were given or none at all. Even if they were encouraged by management to take time off, they worried they would be compared to the fathers -- and employees without children.

"I don't know anyone who is taking time off," said Sharifa Gomez, director of people and culture at Epigen Technology, a tech analytics firm that offers unlimited paid time off.

During the pandemic, Gomez has made a special effort to reach out to parents: If you could use some parental leave right now, she tells them, "please take it."

She wishes that parents would take her up on it, but she understands why they're not. Especially as a woman, she said, you worry about how it might look to put your family first.

"There is this underlying, unspoken question," she said: "How will it affect my career?"

Gomez has twin 5-year-old girls.

Since their school closed in March, she has taken only five days off.

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Part of the problem is ambiguity, many women said. Their companies have been extremely empathetic toward parents in emails and staff meetings, acknowledging their uniquely challenging situation and encouraging them to "take all the time you need." Parents are directed to human resources or their manager to "figure something out."

But it's unclear exactly what that means, said Anna, who works for a child welfare nonprofit and spoke on the condition that her full name not be used out of concern for how her comments could affect her job. Her company has provided employees with an unspecified amount of paid "covid leave," which includes child-care leave, since April 1. Anna, who has a 2-year-old and is pregnant, has used only a few days.

"It's a very nice initiative," said Anna. While it was "amazing" to see such an outpouring of empathy from management, she is still unsure of how much time she is being encouraged to take. She can't exactly follow by example, she said: At her 30-person company, only three other employees are parents.

With no clear guidance on the parental leave policy, Anna says she decided it was safer not to use the leave. If she takes any significant time off for child care, she worries it will cost her later on. She has reason to be concerned: When Anna returned from maternity leave in 2019, she said, some of her colleagues made comments that left her feeling guilty, reminding her that "they took on a lot of additional work without compensation," she said.

The leave also cost her a major career opportunity, she said. In her performance review, her boss explained that she would not be considered for a promotion that year because she had been out of the office. (She was on unpaid leave for 2 1/2 months.)

These kinds of fears are entirely justified, said Francine Blau, a professor of economics at Cornell's University's Industrial and Labor Relations School, who focuses on women and gender. Mothers who go on leave for an extended period run the risk of being "mommy tracked," she said, their careers stalling because they're out of the office -- and because employers assume they're less committed to their work than their male colleagues.

If a father takes parental leave during the pandemic, said Gimbel, an employer is less likely to make "long-term assumptions" about him as a worker.

"We tend to assume that a woman who has children will default out of the labor force," she said.

When Ben Scholbrock decided to take three weeks off for child care, he said, he wasn't too concerned about how the leave might impact his career. The last few months had been extremely difficult, he said: His wife was pregnant and experiencing frequent migraines. For long stretches of time, he had to watch his two kids, ages 4 and 2, in the room where he worked. Picking up on his stress, Scholbrock's manager, a woman with young kids herself, explicitly told him to take leave. Several of his co-workers promised to pick up the slack.

"I really had no reservations on my part," said Scholbrock. "I just started trying to figure out how to get everybody else what they needed so they could cover for me."

For others, it wasn't so simple. One woman, a senior-level manager at a major tech company, was offered 12 weeks of paid parental leave during the pandemic. Soon after the policy was announced, she said, a male colleague informed their team that he would be using the benefit to spend time with his kids. It didn't seem fair, she said: As a mother, she felt she could never say that.

"If I said that, I feel it would be held against me because I'm a woman," she said, speaking on the condition of anonymity because she feared she could lose her job.

She eventually took off less than two weeks, telling only her boss and a few close co-workers that she was using the time for child care. She returned to find she had been removed from a major project.

"On the surface, everyone says they are supportive of you taking time off to care for your kids right now," she said. "But that's on the surface."

Other mothers said they couldn't use parental leave because there is "just too much to do."

Emily Fay, the student services manager for Stanford University's psychology department, has been given 60 hours of caregiving pay. If she needs more time to take care of her kids, emails have assured her, all she has to do is ask.

Sometimes Fay appreciates Stanford's empathetic messages, encouraging her to take the child-care leave that she urgently needs. But more often they leave her frustrated, she said, because the policies don't seem realistic: With no one to replace her, Fay said, any kind of significant leave would be "catastrophic" for the department, still struggling with the transition to virtual learning.

"I feel like I have an obligation to my department, to my students," said Fay. "I would be abandoning them."

Fay's husband works full-time as a software engineer at a tech company. She has made it through the last six months only because her sister was furloughed around the same time that her kids -- ages 4 and 1 -- were sent home, she said. But now her sister is back at work -- and day cares have been closed again because of the California wildfires.

She's not sure what comes next.

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Gimbel has spent much of her career heralding the connection between paid parental leave and economic growth. The data is clear, she says: A federal paid parental leave policy would boost gross domestic product. A companywide policy will help an employer's bottom line. Speaking with government officials and corporate leaders, she used to get a lot of "eye-rolling."

Not anymore, she says.

"We as a nation are taking parenting seriously for the first time," said Gimbel. "People are being smacked in the face with the intersection between parenting and economic growth."

All of a sudden, everyone wants to know what they can do for parents.

A generous leave policy is not enough, said Gimbel: If companies really want to help working parents during the pandemic -- and reap the subsequent economic gains -- they need to adjust their expectations. A parent who takes leave will, for a period of time, necessarily work less than her colleague who doesn't, Gimbel said. But that shouldn't make her any less likely to get a promotion.

"Companies like to talk a big game about supporting mothers and families, but in the U.S. we still expect workers to be on 24/7," Gimbel said.

If parental leave policies are going to take hold in the United States, she said, that has to change.

One solution is to backfill positions, hiring temporary employees to fill in while parents take leave. That option wasn't presented to any of the women interviewed.

Companies could also rejigger work responsibilities, said Blau, spreading a single duty out among a group, so employees can better fill in for one another.

Keri Savoca, a technical writer at a tech company in New York City, says her employer has found a way to strike the right balance. Offering unlimited paid time off before the pandemic, she says, the company has been encouraging employees -- and especially parents -- to take the time they need right now.

People are actually doing it, she said.

It helps that people are able to easily cover for one another. Projects at the tech company are handled by teams, Savoca says, so there are always multiple people with a firm grasp on what needs to get done. Her teammates encourage her to take leave, she says, and she urges them to do the same.

"The culture of not taking paid time off comes from people not taking paid time off," said Savoca. Once parents do it -- and see other parents doing it -- it becomes the norm.

Savoca isn't sure how her company so successfully created this culture, she said. It might have something to do with the email she received from her boss, right after she wrote to tell him she needed to take two weeks off. Her daughter's school was starting up again online, she said, and she wanted to give that her full attention.

He told her to take whatever time she needed. After all, he said, he had a vested interest in the future of the world -- and by extension, her daughter's education.

"To hear something like that was so powerful," Savoca said.

"It was like hearing my manager say, 'You are not going to be left behind.'"

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This story first appeared in The Washington Post's The Lily publication.