For those of us working to expand access to paid family leave in America, a recent report delivered a tough blow. “Companies are cutting back on maternity and paternity leave,” The Wall Street Journal declared, citing a survey from the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM). This isn’t just bad news for families; it’s bad news for businesses.
In the SHRM survey, only 35% of employers reported offering a paid maternity leave policy beyond what is legally required, down from 53% in 2020 and equivalent to the pre-pandemic level. Only 27% of employers said they offer paid paternity leave, down from 44% in 2020 and even lower than the pre-pandemic percentage.
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At first, the drop seems drastic. But fortunately, a closer look at the numbers shows that the picture is not quite so dire.
Only 24% of companies offered paid family leave (which applies to parents and other caregivers) before the pandemic, but this number shot up to 31% in 2020 and remains there. And parental leave is now at 33%, which is down from 2020 but still well above where it was before the pandemic. Some businesses I’ve worked with have stopped offering separate maternity or paternity leave benefits and instead cover parents under parental or family leave.
If these figures seem confusing, that’s because they are. Having studied and tracked leave policies for more than a decade and written a book that delves into them, I’ve found that often, many employees — and even executives — don’t fully understand what their policies offer. I also speak regularly to government and legal groups, parsing the specifics of leave policies. They are a complex, tangled morass.
In a nutshell, here’s what we know: Businesses increased paid caregiving leave during the early phases of the pandemic, when people faced unprecedented challenges, including periods of widespread lockdowns with no access to child care. Some have since reduced those benefits or dropped them altogether. We don’t know how many. (SHRM tells me its figures do not show how many businesses lack any paid leave for parents.)
And there may actually be more parental leave on the horizon.