Stephanie, 30, New Jersey
When did your effort to get paid leave at your company start, and why?
Marketing - Small Tech Company
"It started about a year ago. I’ve been a huge advocate for paid leave for at least five or six years. When I first signed on with my company, I found out they didn’t have paid leave but they did say it was a priority of theirs. Early last year, I saw an opportunity to raise my voice and have a seat at the table. I really like the phrase Kirsten Gillibrand says, 'If you are not at the table you’re on the menu.'
"I started by myself, trying to put together resources and figure out the best plan to share my proposal [with the executive team]. I don’t have [children] but it’s something that’s on [my and my husband's] minds. I wanted to make sure that if I were to start a family, I would be able to take time off without worrying about whether I would have a job later. I definitely don’t want to start a family without having something in place.
"So I put together a proposal and brought in one of my coworkers who was really supportive of the idea, and we decided to start the conversation with the director of HR. He was very open and said this was something he has wanted to do, but he hadn't found the time. We set up a meeting, went back and forth over the course of a few months, and by the summertime, we presented a final draft that was sent off to the lawyers for review. It’s going to be rolled out this month."How did you and this coworker end up teaming up?
"We’re in the same department and are kind of like work besties; she had been there for a couple years longer than I had. At the time, I'd just been with the company for a year — in all honesty, like four months. Sometimes you’ve got to take the bull by the horns and say, 'This is what I’m doing.'
"But there’s power in numbers and having allies. Over the course of time, I let some directors know what I was doing to try to gain their support too, so when it was brought up, there was already that support system. Being a company that is mostly men, it was awesome to see all the support from the men in the office, from the directors' level to the CEO, to the HR director. It was awesome that they had such open minds and would let somebody else into the conversation."Paid leave tends to become more important to people when they’re starting a family, but not as much before then. Why is this something you’ve thought about for so long?
"After the book Lean In
came in out, I learned that the United States doesn't have [federally mandated] paid leave. I knew we had something in New Jersey because that’s been around for a while, but I was kind of shocked that there was nothing out there for women [on a national level]. For a country that says that it is pro-family, we do very little to encourage families. As a young professional, I wondered how I was supposed to advance in my career if there’s no opportunity for me to be able to take leave if I wanted to. I couldn’t afford to lose a job because I wanted to have a family. None of it seemed fair and I couldn’t sit there and take it. I wanted to be the maker of my destiny if you will.
"I’ve been very outspoken about it in my circle of friends and online, so when an opportunity came — especially on the heels of the fire the progressive movement has been having since the election and before the election — I thought, Now’s my time to say something, speak out, and be a part the change
. Sometimes if you want something done, you have to do it yourself, and I was okay with that. I knew it was a risk; asking for paid leave is still unfortunately taboo to talk about and ask for in your company.When you started agitating for this, what were people’s reactions? Your company was willing to make it work but did you encounter people — friends or coworkers — saying, "Don’t make a fuss over this"?
"Oh yeah. To this day, one of my best friends still tells me he doesn’t think it’s a big deal. I’ve had to do a lot of educating and say look, this something that, unfortunately, not everyone has the luxury of having. We shouldn’t penalize people just because they are not as well off as we are. Starting a family is not a luxury. It’s something that our society needs to survive, and if we are pushing out 50% of the workforce because only the top elite can afford to take paid leave, what does that say about the state of our economy? That was one aspect of it.
"I also had a lot of female friends who were supportive of the fact that we should have [paid leave] but were very resistant to being that squeaky wheel. They were afraid of getting fired. They were afraid to be looked at by management in the wrong way — like they were going to leave and have babies. I’ve heard from friends, 'At least I get four weeks,' or 'At least I have some time off.' I don’t want crumbs. I want an actual slice of the cake. Don’t placate me with four weeks when I’m very aware of the fact that it takes at least six weeks, at the bare minimum, to physically heal from childbirth. Not to mention all the complications that can come along with it.
"The more I researched, the more I became aware that women in this country suffer so many postpartum complications, [including] emotionally, and there’s no real support. When women are able to take time off, they’re more likely to go back to work and not feel forced out of the workforce. I always wanted women and my friends to be able to live their dreams and have the choice to stay home or go back to work, not to be pushed into a corner and making a choice between their families and their careers."What did you put in that presentation to HR and how did it change over time as you worked on it with your coworker?
"We wanted to go in big, but knowing we’re not a large company like Facebook or Netflix that can offer a year, we wanted to offer something that was still reasonable. We didn’t want to be laughed out of the meeting! We asked to for 16 weeks to be paid at 100% and to be inclusive of men and women. I recently came across a quote that said something like, 'We can’t achieve equality for women at work until we achieve equality for men at home.' It was really important to make sure that men have equal access and the same amount of time a woman would get. That way, we can start to change the conversation about caregiving that it’s not just the 'woman’s job.'
"In the end, the total package we compromised on is about 80% of what we asked for. It includes the flexibility to return back to work gradually when you’re taking your leave, which I think is helpful because it helps with that transition. A lot of time, it’s a shock for new parents. It includes men and women, and also care for a sick family member, similar to how FMLA works
.What advice would you give to someone who wanted to do something similar? Any resources to come armed with?
"I wanted to make the business case for paid leave. It was really important to not just get what’s in it for employees [conveyed] but also what’s in it for the business. I found a lot of resources that supported the fact that it’s super costly to replace an employee, and when you are able to provide paid leave to employees, they are more likely to return to the workforce. It increases productivity, engagement, retention, and recruitment. When I presented those cases, aligned with our company values and what we found important as an organization, it was a very powerful message.
"I also wanted to make sure that I did the legwork for everyone involved so when we presented it, it wasn’t just a fictional idea. I wanted to be able to say, 'Hey, this is what we want, how long we want the leave, and what should be paid.' From there, you start your negotiations. I felt like the more information I could give them and present it like a business proposal, the more I could eliminate all those initial questions. It also felt much more digestible by the [executive] team."
"One piece of advice I also have is to be patient. It took a good year to get this through. There were some points where I didn’t necessarily get worried, but I did start to get impatient. Following up is so key to that. Executives are incredibly busy, so the more you can follow up in a way that makes sense, without being annoying, the better for you — because this is really important.
"This whole conversation around paid leave and the fact that huge companies like Walmart and Starbucks are finally starting to get it makes me so hopeful for the country. I think it’s about thinking big, starting small, and acting fast. You don’t have to be scared. You don’t have to be an HR professional to enact paid leave. It just starts with a conversation. Especially for smaller businesses that may be concerned about the cost, sometimes the cost is too great not to do it."