What We Learned from Talking with U.S. Employers About Paid Leave

By Angela Romei, Director, Paid Leave Panorama

When we set out to interview leaders at large U.S. companies about why they did or didn’t offer paid family and medical leave, we had some assumptions. After 20 years in the corporate world, most recently at Microsoft, I knew the tech industry provided cushy benefits most other industries simply can’t afford. I assumed it was an isolated exception, and I focused my attention elsewhere.

Yet through many in-depth conversations across multiple industries last year, I realized how much we had to learn.

As part of The Paid Leave Project, an effort to encourage and enable employers to voluntarily offer paid leave, Panorama uncovered the more complicated factors influencing an employer’s decision to offer paid leave.

Take the tech industry. I knew competition within an industry would be a huge driver, and it is. But we also learned about the outsized influence Google, Facebook, Amazon and other players in the tech industry have on companies in completely different industries. Geography matters as much as industry if an employer competes for people who have family and friends securing great benefits nearby.

We also assumed that money was the biggest barrier. It’s true that the cost of paid leave is truly daunting for many large employers, especially in industries with low profit margins. But we didn’t expect to learn that companies feel equally burdened by the challenges of being short an employee – whether on the production line, the front line, or in a small office.

Fundamentally, employers want to do the right thing by their employees. Aligning hearts with heads isn’t always an easy thing, especially in the corporate world. But we spoke with many companies who are figuring it out.

Nestle USA has turned workforce management into a cross training opportunity. RaceTrac, a retail chain in the south, is retaining its top female talent. And two of the nation’s largest employers, Walmart and Starbucks, recently took advantage of tax credits to expand paid leave to hourly workers because they otherwise could not afford to take time off from work.

We also discovered a few emerging trends that give us hope for American workers.

The demographics of our U.S. workforce has been changing for years – with more women in the workforce, an aging population and millennials entering the scene – and yet our workplace policies and benefits haven’t kept pace. The U.S. remains the only developed country not offering paid time off from work. The Family Medical Leave Act, passed 25 years ago, ensured job protection when a worker must take time off, but it is unpaid. We are forced to choose between caring for a family member or earning a paycheck. But, in part due to the factors noted above, that’s changing.

Encouraged by employers asking us to share what we learned, we developed this report to help them find creative ways to offer paid leave that works for their business model and workforce.

Our goal is to increase access to paid leave for all American workers and we hope our research helps by sharing the employer point of view.