BUSINESS
09/29/2015 03:30 pm ET Updated Sep 29, 2015

These 5 Companies Are Trying To Spark A Parental Leave Revolution

They have a lot of work to do.
The U.S. is the only industrialized nation that doesn't provide workers paid leave through public policy.
Daniel Berehulak/Getty Images
The U.S. is the only industrialized nation that doesn't provide workers paid leave through public policy.

A handful of big corporations are trying to lead the way to improve working conditions for new parents -- and fill the void left by the U.S. government. At the Clinton Global Initiative meeting on Tuesday, they announced the formation of the Working Parent Support Coalition.

Five companies so far have joined the coalition, including the U.S. arms of Danone, Nestlé and Barclays, as well as private equity shop KKR and consulting firm Ernst & Young. The group hopes to attract many more. Cornell University and the American Academy of Pediatrics have also signed on to offer support and research.

"The real opportunity here to make the gap between reality and policy smaller and smaller by having companies step up," Luciana Nunez, a Danone managing director who came up with the idea, told The Huffington Post. "This is the beginning. We want more companies on board," she said.

The U.S. is the only industrialized nation that doesn't provide workers paid leave through public policy. Some typically white-collar employees are lucky enough to get paid maternity leave. But not that many. Only 21 percent of private employers offer paid maternity leave, according to a survey from the Society for Human Resource Management. By contrast, 98 percent offer paid holidays. 

To move the needle on these issues, you need both private-sector action and public policy reforms. "In order to support working parents and help them thrive both at work and at home, it's going to take a lot of players," Ellen Galinsky, president of the Families and Work Institute, told HuffPost. "The earlier assumption was [that] it's just public policy, but it also takes working on the cultural issues." A high-profile group like the Working Parent Support Coalition can lead the way to change, she said.

To join the coalition, companies must make some kind of commitment toward improving the quality of life for employees who are new parents. Then, with the help of the Clinton Global Initiative, companies will track the effectiveness of their programs: Are people actually taking all the leave offered? Do workers who receive such support stay with their jobs longer? The coalition says it will make that information publicly available, in order to help business figure out what actually works.

"These policies are only good if people use them," Paul Bakus, Nestlé's president for corporate affairs, told HuffPost. Nestlé announced in June that it's increasing the amount of paid leave it offers parents from six to 14 weeks, starting next year. Bakus said the increase will cost the company, although he would specify how much. He added that offering a decent amount of paid leave is simply "the right thing to do."

Danone's Nunez said offering better leave improves the health of employees and their children. She said it also fits with the company's mission to encourage more mothers to breastfeed babies for longer periods. "In the U.S., the most important reason moms stop is because they go back to work," she said.

Danone, which sells Dannon yogurt and Evian water among other things, has committed to extending the amount of paid leave that it offers primary caretakers in the U.S. from 6-12 weeks to six months, starting next year.  

Consulting firm Ernst & Young, which already offers fairly generous benefits to new parents, is looking at ways to encourage more men at the company to take paternity leave.

"You're starting to see a lot of companies make changes, and this area of maternal health is becoming more visible. Now's the time to put fuel on the fire," said Bakus.

Indeed, elite employers seem to be engaging in an arms race this year to offer the best benefits to white-collar workers. Netflix now gives new parents up to a year off. Facebook, Adobe and Microsoft have also beefed up the amount of leave allowed. In finance, companies like KKR now offer posh perks like paying for a caregiver to accompany a new mother on work-related travel during the first year of a child's life.

Unfortunately, the benefits arms race hasn't extended to low-paid workers who desperately need paid leave. Danone's Nunez said she hoped the new coalition would attract companies who employ hourly and lower-paid workers.

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