Crafting Our Paid Parental Leave Policy: Supporting Families, Rejecting Oppression

Parental leave baby

This blog is part of MSI Integrity’s broader effort to share publicly its internal effort to construct a more liberatory workplace, which includes developing anti-oppressive, worker-supporting policies and implementing workplace democracy. See our blog on our COVID-19 policies as another example in this series, with more to come in 2021.

Paid parental leave (PPL) is an integral component of dignified employment in the twenty-first century. It is critical to battling patriarchy and gender roles in and outside the workplace and home, and to supporting the fullness of a worker’s life beyond their employment.

PPL is a source of liberation, a rejection of oppression. But tragically, it is severely limited, or more commonly, entirely absent in the United States—unlike almost every single other industrialized country in the world. This absence reinforces class, racial, gender and other inequities as people that don’t have the resources to take off from work without income, pay for childcare and other child-rearing necessities, are left in the lurch. Whereas OECD governments on average offer over four months of paid maternity leave and two months of paid father-specific leave, the US government only mandates three months of unpaid parental leave for organizations and companies with over 50 employees.

Not only is this woefully inadequate for workers at such organizations, but it excludes the 40% of workers in the US who work at organizations with less than 50 staff. It also leaves the door open for employers who do offer PPL to design policies that are premised on sexist assumptions, uphold the gender binary or are oppressive to families that don’t fit neatly within heteronormative boundaries.

Absent robust government-sponsored parental leave, or an otherwise collectively organized system of child-rearing, it is incumbent on US companies and organizations themselves to fill in the gap with policies that support gender equity and workers with different family structures. While some large corporations and private foundations have been able to reach into their deep pockets to offer 6 – 12 months of leave, these are the exception not the rule.

For small organizations with limited resources—like ours—what sorts of policies and organizational practices can balance the desire for a robust and equitable PPL without putting too much strain on our budget and staff?

This was the challenge we faced when designing our first PPL earlier this year. What’s more, this challenge was exacerbated by a dearth of available data on PPL policies at similarly sized organizations. Without examples and accessible data, regressive practices are able to prevail and workers’ ability to demand better conditions, benefits and compensation are severely hindered; employers rather than employees are favored, and a race to the bottom commences—rather than one to the top.

We think it is important to combat this by contributing to a culture of shared knowledge and practices and transparency. Such an approach can help us all make our workplace policies the best they can be. We are sharing it in the hope it will serve as both encouragement for other organizations to create or improve their PPL policies, and an invitation to challenge us to improve our own.

MSI Integrity is a small organization, but when our staff and our Board sat down to write this policy, we were guided by a big vision and a clear set of values: an anti-oppressive policy that supports different family structures and gender equity, that rejects the gender binary and that provides significant time for the critical period of family bond formation—and the care work that entails.

We believe our new policy reflects those values, while also balancing the financial and personnel constraints we have as a small organization. It does this by:

  • Providing up to six months paid leave over two years. Rather than make this available as a full-lump sum, which could put too much financial and personal strain our organization, the leave is available in two phases. Initially, up to four months of guaranteed paid leave in the first year after the birth, adoption or fostering. In the second year, as long as we have a minimum of six-months operating expenses in the bank, two more months are available.
  • Equal leave duration and compensation for pregnancies, adoptions, and foster placements;
  • Equal leave regardless of gender identity, sexual orientation and family structure, or whether the worker is the child-bearing, legally adopting, or fostering parent, or the partner of that parent; and
  • Making leave available for individuals or their partners who experience a miscarriage or stillbirth.

We share some more details on the PPL below, but are happy to share the full policy upon request.

The Policy

Sixteen Weeks of Leave Guaranteed For Everyone. Our workers are all now entitled to four months of their salary and benefits as paid parental leave. Worked at MSI Integrity for less than six months? You are still entitled to this benefit, but at 50% of your salary.

Eight More Weeks (if we can afford it) in the second year. Workers who have been employed at MSI Integrity for at least six months are entitled to eight more weeks of paid leave in the following year, totalling six months, if our organization has a minimum of six-months operating expenses reserved. Spacing the leave in this way and having it contingent on adequate funds in the second year, makes our policy among the most generous available in the nonprofit sector, without putting undue stress on the rest of our staff or organizational resources. It also acts as an incentive for staff to remain at MSI Integrity over the long-term. Staff believe this strikes a fair balance of providing adequate paid leave to our workers while maintaining a robust financial position for our small organization.

Equity across gender, sexual orientation and family structure. All employees are eligible for our PPL policy regardless of gender identity, sexual orientation, or family circumstance. A policy that discriminates based on gender is one that maintains women’s segregated and lowered status in the workplace. Our policy is about gender equity rather than “gender-neutrality” because we are specifically tending to the discrimination women face in the workplace and in the broader labor market as those who most often take PPL. Policies that give longer leave to “birthing parents” also reinforce practices and expectations of women in the home, putting more pressure on them to act as the primary caregiver; it facilities a lesser role for non-birthing parents in the family by requiring their quicker return to work, and thus giving them less time to bond and immerse in their new family dynamic.

That said, we are aware that in workplaces with similar policies male-identified individuals will often not take the PPL due to cultural or other internal workplace pressures, thereby reproducing the discriminatory conditions of less just, maternity-focused policies. In response, it incumbent on us not just to have robust policies, but also to facilitate a culture of solidarity and justice to ensure that gender discrimination—or all forms of discrimination—is not a byproduct of child-rearing.

Further, by offering PPL to all employees regardless of gender identity and sexual orientation, we aim to reject the gender binary and heteronormativity, and to support rather than punish LGBTQ+ families. Similarly, we hope to embrace different family structures, rather than endlessly favoring the systematized defaults of marriage, monogamy and other forms of nuclearization.

Pregnancies, Adoptions, and Foster Placements. Our policy is not limited to pregnancies. Parents who are birthing, legally adopting, or legally fostering a child, as well as their partners, are eligible for PPL. We have decided to include adopting and foster parents, and to not differentiate their durations and compensations, to push back against the supremacy of the nuclear family structure.

What are we still grappling with?

First, this was a learning process for us, and we are keen to receive feedback on how to expand the policy for greater inclusivity. We believe this move is a solid first-step in recognizing and empowering families of different shapes and sizes, but if there are ways we could improve it, please let us know!

Second, the policy focuses on supporting people who are bringing a child into their life, but we recognize that this is only one instance in which workers need support with their families and that a family is not—and should not—be defined by the decision to raise a child. We would love to see examples of how organizations and communities are more holistically and expansively conceptualizing their support for working families. We are interested in how organizations support individuals during critical moments, such as birth, illness and death, but also in the day-to-day.

As noted above, we are happy to share our full policy upon request. We want to help other workers in our field empower themselves and their workplaces with a progressive PPL policy. At the same time, our inbox is open for feedback, ideas, criticism, or questions.

But if you want to hear from our Executive Director, Amelia Evans, you’ll have to wait until later in  2021—when she returns from paid parental leave!

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