This is a guest post from Hilary Dessouky, a Nebraskan who now works for Patagonia, a company that supports families by offering generous benefits like paid family leave and on-site child care
Growing up in Omaha, Nebraska was pretty close to perfect. My brother and I went to great public schools in a close-knit neighborhood and had two working parents who always managed to be there when we needed them. As a tenured professor, my dad had the stability and flexibility to stay home whenever we were sick, not to mention do the many things that enriched our lives. Mom worked in the office of Omaha’s YWCA headquarters and had arranged a job share that allowed for flexibility and more time at home. When one of them had to be away from work to take care of us they could, knowing they would be paid along the way and their jobs would be there when they returned.
As a an adult and full-time working parent I now know that this was not just life in the heartland. And it’s not life in America for most. At some point, nearly everyone will need to take time away from work to deal with a serious personal or family illness, or to care for a new child. But only 17 percent of workers in the United States have access to paid family leave through their employers, and fewer than 40 percent have access to personal medical leave through employer-provided short-term disability insurance. The U.S. is one of only eight countries in the world without a national policy mandating paid maternity leave. While the Family Medical Leave Act requires that companies with more than 50 employees provide up to 12 weeks of leave to allow employees time off for the birth of a baby or to care for a loved one, wages during that time aren’t covered. In Nebraska, only 44% of working adults are eligible for the unpaid leave offered by FMLA, and only 37.5% are eligible and can afford to take it.
My current home state of California and my employer, Patagonia, provide alternatives that not only support working families but are good for business. California was the first state in the country to pass paid family leave in 2004, providing up to 6 weeks of partial pay to employees who take time off from work to care for a seriously ill family member or to bond with a new child. Patagonia goes even further, with 16 weeks fully paid leave to new moms and 12 weeks for dads and adoptive parents. All employees get 12 weeks of fully paid leave when they need to care for a sick family member or one returning home from military service. Patagonia also offers on-site child care for employees in our corporate headquarters in Ventura, California and our distribution center in Reno, Nevada. Parents who need to travel for work can bring a caregiver with them at Patagonia’s cost. These benefits lead to more committed, more satisfied employees resulting in lower turn-over and greater engagement. 100% of the women who have had children in the past year have returned to work at Patagonia, compared to the national average of 64%. And, in large part because moms at Patagonia don’t drop out of the work force and dads take full advantage of their parental leave, about 50% of our managers are women, 50% of our senior leaders are women and we have a female CEO. And business is better than ever.
Until Congress passes a comprehensive federal paid leave statute, businesses and states need to step in and fill the gap. The District of Columbia and five states — California, New Jersey, Rhode Island, New York, Washington — have paid family-leave programs. Nebraska should join in and show us what it really means to live in the heartland.