This month, statehouse leaders rolled out paid leave plans to full-time employees of the Georgia House and Senate. In December, the U.S. Congress struck a bipartisan agreement extending such benefits to more than 2 million civilian federal employees.
Not everyone is on board. The issue has created a rift among conservatives who seek to promote strong families but wrestle with government mandates and the proposed price tags of such policies.
Polls show the vast majority of Americans support paid leave for new parents but differ on how to such programs should be designed.
The benefits have largely flowed to white-collar workers at larger companies, according to government data. Many lower wage and hourly workers are still forced to choose between quitting their jobs or returning to work soon after birth.
Still, paid parental leave advocates like Mindy Binderman are feeling more optimistic than ever.
“If you had asked me two years ago about paid parental leave and the prospects in Georgia, I would have said slim to none,” said Binderman, executive director of the Georgia Early Education Alliance for Ready Students, a nonprofit focused on boosting care and learning for children under 5. “I think now we’re in a healthy discussion about the need for it because frankly the workforce is demanding it.”
Crunching the numbers
Most U.S. workers are protected by the federal Family and Medical Leave Act, which allows parents to take 12 weeks off without fear of losing their jobs. But the 27-year-old law only promises unpaid leave and exempts small businesses with less than 50 employees.
Among 41 wealthy nations, the U.S. is the sole country that doesn't mandate paid maternity leave, according to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. Only 17% of American civilian workers had access to the benefit in March 2018, the most recent data available from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The number was even lower, 11%, for service industry employees.
Eight states, Puerto Rico and the District of Columbia have designed their own policies requiring at least some form of paid leave, and legislation is under consideration in at least 15 other states, according to the National Conference of State Legislators.
Georgia is not currently among them.
There is no state law forcing employers to offer paid time off to workers who have given birth or adopted new children. Most Georgia workers must take unpaid time off — or cobble together vacation days, short-term disability and other leave — when they welcome a new child into their family.
The National Partnership for Women and Families estimated that 60% of working people in Georgia do not have access to unpaid leave or can't afford to take it. The left-leaning advocacy group graded Georgia's parental leave programs an 'F,' along with 18 other states and the federal government.
Supporters say paid leave policies offer long-term benefits to businesses and the economy, including less job turnover among women, who recently outnumbered men in the workforce for only the second time. They also point to the health and societal benefits that come from giving mothers time to heal from childbirth and bond with their new children.
Lindsey Bullinger, an assistant professor at Georgia Tech, studied data from California, which enacted the country's first paid family leave law nearly two decades ago. She said the program has led to an "improvement in overall child health" for infants, including a reduction in asthma rates.
“We know that kids who are healthier at birth and in early infanthood are healthier, they have higher education attainment, they’re more likely to be employed and more likely to pay taxes when they’re adults because they’re employed,” she said.
Opponents say paid leave programs have proven costly for businesses and are ineffective at aiding women in the workforce. A recent study by three university professors and a Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago staffer found that California's paid family leave law lowered employment by 7% and annual wages by 8% for new mothers six to ten years after giving birth.
Some critics of a federal mandate have advanced alternatives that would allow employees to stockpile overtime hours to use for leave, use pretax savings accounts or tap Social Security benefits early.
The ongoing debate hasn’t stopped some Georgia companies from rolling out paid parental leave programs of their own, especially those that have traditionally struggled to recruit women or are competing with Silicon Valley companies for prospective employees.
“The days of simply having competitive salary, benefits and a 401K have obviously changed,” said Daniel Cobb, an Atlanta-based consultant for the human resources-focused firm Mercer.
Accenture, which has nearly 3,000 employees in Atlanta, provides four months of paid leave to new moms. The global consulting firm also offers flexible work assignments for their first year back, a breast-milk shipping service for those who opt to travel and 120 hours of emergency childcare if a babysitter falls through.
Ponce City Market-based Mailchimp offers 18 weeks of maternity or adoption leave, covers in-vitro fertilization and reimburses up to $5,000 in adoption expenses for their employees, among other benefits at the email marketing company.
While parental leave is traditionally associated with new moms, many companies also extend some benefits to fathers and non-primary caregivers.
Chester Banaszak, SalesLoft’s manager of IT and facilities, recently took advantage of the company’s six weeks of paid paternity leave after the birth of his fourth child late last year. He said the parental benefits were a major factor as he considered joining the company nearly two years ago — and that the time he took off for his new daughter was more than the leave he was able to take for his three older children combined.
“It definitely alleviated a lot of the burden and hassles of trying to figure out our new family of six,” Banaszak said. “We got to bond a little bit as a family, which we might not have gotten if I wasn’t there.”
The trend has also filtered down to some of the city’s largest corporations.
Coca-Cola in 2016 began offering six weeks of paid parental leave to new parents — regardless of gender or if they’re adopting or fostering — in addition to the six to eight weeks moms receive through short-term disability. Home Depot offers similar benefits.
Even some smaller businesses not bound by the Family and Medical Leave Act are joining in.
Jon Williams, CEO of Athens-based W&A Engineering, introduced a plan a couple years ago that includes 12 weeks of unpaid leave, an extra week of vacation, more telecommuting options and a 5% pay bump for things like childcare, student loan repayment, philanthropy and wellness. It proved such a runaway success with employees that Williams plans to expand them, including adding more than a month of paid parental leave.
“My focus as a CEO right now is to build a generationally sustainable company,” Williams said. “I have a firm belief that companies that are doing good work in the community and for their employees are the ones that are going to attract and retain the talent.”
‘Natural next step’
The city of Atlanta has had its own program in place since 2015, along with five other Georgia municipalities.
In the statehouse, House Speaker David Ralston surprised paid parental leave proponents last summer when he announced he would grant the chamber’s roughly 95 full-time employees three weeks of paid time off when they welcome a new child. A similar program was soon announced for state Senate staffers.
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Ralston, R-Blue Ridge, said the House policy is meant to celebrate "the culture of life" and complements two recent laws overhauling the state's adoption process and restricting abortions.
“I thought this was a natural next step for us to take to promote families and promote healthy families,” Ralston said in a recent interview.
Ralston hasn’t ruled out an expansion of paid leave benefits beyond his chamber’s full-time employees but said he’d rather see the private sector take the lead.
“As time goes on, I’m open to looking at seeing if we can take it on a greater scale,” said Ralston, but “not in the short term. I want to see if there’s any unforeseen issues with the program here.”
The policy won Ralston kudos even from some of his fiercest Democratic critics, some of whom had previously introduced paid leave legislation only to see it collect dust.
“It’s a positive step, so I’ll take it,” said state Sen. Jen Jordan, D-Atlanta. “But I definitely think we can take it a step further.”
Nationally, Republicans also are warming to the idea of paid parental leave. Ivanka Trump, President Trump’s daughter and adviser, is a big supporter.
Other allies include former presidential candidate Rick Santorum, a social conservative who voted against the Family and Medical Leave Act while in Congress.
“Our birthrates are the lowest ever,” the Pennsylvania Republican said at a Georgia Center for Opportunity event at Georgia Tech earlier this month. Moderate and lower-income workers, he added, “are having the hardest time figuring out how they’re going to raise a family.”
Staff writer Michael E. Kanell contributed to this article.