How parental leave policies can benefit your bottom line

Promoting a healthy work-life balance aids recruiting and retention for architecture and engineering firms.

By Michelle M. DeCarlo, PE, LEED AP BD+C; Jaros Baum & Bolles, New York City January 17, 2018

The difficult hiring climate, combined with an emerging workforce that highly values work-life balance, is driving the popularity of expanded paid family leave policies among progressive companies.

While critics argue that paid family leave places an unfair burden on businesses, the real-world experience of employers in California suggests otherwise. Eight years after California instituted paid family leave, the Center for Economic and Policy Research conducted a survey and found that 91% of employers said the policy either increased profits or had no effect.

The California survey also found that more than 95% of those who took family leave returned to work at the end of the leave period. These results reinforce the fact that paid parental leave promotes employee retention with no negative effects on a company’s financial performance.

New York State recently passed a law that will mandate paid time off for parents to bond with a new child, including adopted and foster children. This new law also allows paid leave to either care for a close relative with a serious health condition or help relieve family pressures when someone is called to active military service.

In 2018, the law’s first year, eligible employees can receive up to 8 weeks of paid leave at 50% of their average weekly wage, albeit capped at 50% of the state-average weekly wage. This gradually rises to 12 weeks at 67% of average weekly wage (capped at 67% of the state-average weekly wage) for 2021 and beyond. 

Case study: Jaros, Baum & Bolles’ new policy for parental leave

In March 2017, Jaros, Baum & Bolles (JB&B) implemented a new, forward-thinking parental leave policy for full-time employees who have been with the company for at least 3 years.

With the goal of broadening access to parental leave benefits by older parents and same-sex couples, the firm included adoption and surrogacy in its policy. For example, a man or woman in a same-sex relationship could qualify for parental leave when adopting or using a surrogate.

JB&B now provides 4 weeks of full salary for parental leave benefits. When combined with short-term disability, where applicable, the total parental leave benefit equates to 7 weeks of full pay. When the New York State law takes effect in 2018, JB&B will extend its policy by the new law’s terms, rather than overlapping the two.

Unfortunately, JB&B is an exception when it comes to paid parental leave policies. The ASHRAE Women in Engineering (WIE) Committee’s New York chapter queried other firms through an anonymous survey that included the question of parental leave. ASHRAE NY discovered that parental leave policies were largely non-existent and that maternity leave was less than sufficient. Based on these findings and JB&B’s internal policy goals, the firm crafted a policy, one of the first of its kind in our business community, that addresses these issues in a more equitable manner. The goal is for this policy to serve as a model for other firms to implement.

Method for recruiting and retaining employees

The anticipated New York State family leave law is a momentous step in the right direction, but it still falls short of adequately supporting professional architects and engineers. This is because the wage caps included in the law will likely limit their pay to an insufficient fraction of their normal rate.

Firms should not wait for new family leave laws to go into effect, nor should the industry accept their provisions as the absolute best that can be done. In the interest of hiring and retaining the most qualified and talented staff, every firm should support new parents and other employees facing a family hardship by offering the financial and job security of a forward-looking family leave policy.

Experience and data show that establishing such a policy is the right move to make. It is not only good for employees, but also for the firm’s bottom line.

Michelle M. DeCarlo is an associate at Jaros, Baum & Bolles, a mechanical, electrical, plumbing, and building systems engineering firm based in New York City. She also serves as chairperson of the ASHRAE New York Women in Engineering Committee.