Parental leave crisis looms in U.S.

Matthew Gutierrez
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Pittsburgh — When the Pittsburgh Paid Family Leave of Absence passed in spring 2015, Chuck O’Neill assumed the rule granting six weeks of paid leave for public sector employees applied only to mothers.

A few weeks later, he read an article about the policy and realized it included fathers as well.

“Holy heck, this is amazing,” he thought.

He soon figured paperwork was all that separated him from spending six weeks at his Summer Hill home with his son Mason, who was then a few months old.

O’Neill had just begun his job as fleet contract manager for the City of Pittsburgh. That’s why he chose to take his leave later in the summer, when he’d be settled into his job and his son could go on day care summer recess. On Aug. 1, 2015, O’Neill went on paid parental leave.

Across much of the country, a parental leave crisis looms. Only about 12 percent of private sector workers in the U.S. have access to paid family leave through their employers, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

The 2014 National Study of Employers, a private study of large employers, found 58 percent reported providing some pay during maternity leave, but only 14 percent reported providing some paid paternity leave. A Department of Labor survey shows 9 out of 10 fathers take some time off work for their newborn, but 70 percent take 10 days or fewer.

In Pittsburgh, just nine of 3,377 city employees cited a new child as the reason for taking unpaid leave in 2013.

For many Americans, the costs associated with taking time off of work mean that paid leave — a rarity — is the only way they can afford to do it.

“Having a baby is one of the most financially significant times of your life and can result in serious financial hardship,” said Ashleigh Deemer, chief of staff for Pittsburgh Councilwoman Natalia Rudiak. Rudiak introduced the legislation giving city employees six weeks of fully paid leave. “For a lot of people, unpaid leave may not be an option.”

A growing number of corporations have implemented paid leave policies in the past year. Facebook has extended its leave program from four weeks to four months. Amazon is up to six weeks from zero. Twitter has doubled its leave time from 10 weeks to 20.

Yet while the concept of a more balanced work-family life is gaining recognition, the U.S. remains the only developed nation without a federal parental leave policy.

“We’re very, very behind the 8-Ball in terms of supporting both parents for paid leave nationally,” said Beth Brascugli De Lima, CEO of HRM Consulting, a San Francisco human resources consulting firm.

Had the Pittsburgh policy not been passed, O’Neill, 36, said he wouldn’t have gotten the six weeks with his son that, as he said, changed his life. During their time together, he took Mason, now 20 months old, to the park. They swam in the family pool in the backyard. Instead of waking up at 5:45 a.m. to spend nine hours a day at day care, Mason could sleep in, hang out in his pajamas and play with his dad.

“I thought about what it would have been like if I hadn’t had (the time off),” O’Neill said. “I can’t answer that . . . He and I know each other a lot better, exponentially more than we would have if I hadn’t ... .”