3 Employees Who Pushed For Paid Leave At Work — & What Happened

Over the last few years, the number of corporations expanding paid family leave policies for employees has increased. Most recently, Starbucks and Walmart have expanded this option for workers who don't occupy the C-Suite. (Although some of that progress has been marked with layoffs as well.)

To be clear, this progress didn't happen overnight: The passage of the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA) 25 years ago was a big step in giving workers time to care for newborns and loved ones, but efforts for a more comprehensive, national policy for parents is still a way off. In honor of the anniversary of FMLA, the National Partnership for Women & Families has released an analysis showing how expanded leave would change the lives of various Americans.

"Nationally, the FMLA guarantees unpaid leave, but about 40% of workers are not covered by the law and many who are covered cannot afford to take the unpaid leave it provides," the organization explains. "Just 15% of workers in the United States have paid family leave through their employers, and fewer than 40% have paid medical leave through employer-provided temporary disability insurance."

Although many of these efforts start at the top-level, many advocates argue that ensuring these policies reach employees at all levels is where real change lies.

"Employees and the public at large are all showing tremendous appetite for equal treatment when it comes to parental leave — a baby of the CEO or the mail clerk both have the same needs," says Katie Bethell, the founder and executive director of Paid Leave U.S. (PL+US). "Parental leave is a great place to start [and] companies should have their eyes on family caregiving and taking care of spouses and elderly family members, as the next big trend in workplace needs as our population ages."

Ahead, we talk to three people who fought for paid leave in three very different workplaces. They explained the setbacks, research, and conversations it took to make a change at their jobs.

Illustration by Abbie Winters

Stephanie, 30, New Jersey
Marketing - Small Tech Company

When did your effort to get paid leave at your company start, and why?

"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."
Illustration by Abbie Winters

Ryan, 21, Los Angeles
Partner - Starbucks

When did the issue of paid leave come up for you?

"The topic of family has always been a big part of my life. I come from a Hispanic background, so family is very centered in our culture. Even though I’m gay, having a family has always been a goal for me, but before [I got involved with] PL+US, I never really thought about the financial repercussions that having a family could have — especially for somebody who’s gay in corporate America, where the vast majority of people don’t even get paid family leave to begin with, let alone non-birth parents or gay couples."

How did you start getting involved?

"I’m in a bunch of Facebook groups that cater to Starbucks baristas all over the nation, and even all over the world. We hang out, exchange recipes, talk about customers, our rent — all sort of things related to Starbucks baristas — and Niko Walker posted a campaign he was doing for PL+US, trying to garner signatures from partners from all over the nation asking Starbucks to expand its paid parental leave policies. I started doing more research about what Niko was doing and found out that he’s been working really hard alongside PL+US to get baristas heard so that corporate understood this is something we wanted. That’s when it came to the forefront of my mind. I realized that if I ever want to have a family, this is something I wouldn’t have for my children.

"I was so happy that someone was speaking on an issue that is vital to me. I found out where Nico worked, bought a bouquet of flowers, and took them to his location as a thank you and to encourage him to keep going. Because a lot of the time, you could sense that he wasn’t giving up, but I wanted him to feel recognized and know that what he was doing was speaking volumes to people."

What was the result of that?

"After that, Annie Sartor, the program director at PL+US, and Jenna Mowat, the campaigns coordinator, asked why I bought the flower and I told them the same thing — that family values are important to me. They loved it and asked if I wanted to become part of the campaign myself, and that’s when it all started.

"Later, Nico and I were invited to fly out to Seattle to meet with Ron Crawford, the VP of global benefits at Starbucks, and the timing was perfect. It was during Seattle Pride, so it was a time when we could meet as many LGBT parents, LGBT partners, and people who would benefit from this sort of policy change. But after we flew out there, we were kind of disappointed with the meeting. When we met with him, Crawford said there was absolutely no plan for the policy to change. It wasn’t something, he said, that partners — people who work at Starbucks — had been asking for, and a change wasn't on the table. So we delivered the thousands of signatures from people all over the nation asking for it and said you can’t say nobody’s asking for this because here are the voices of thousands of people commenting on why they were signing.

"We came to an agreement that Ron would listen in on a conference call that we would arrange, with baristas from all over the country, whom we would interview beforehand so they could have their voices heard. There would be parents of newborn children who work at Starbucks, and people wanted to be parents in the future — just so he could hear that this was something we wanted. We set that up [but] a few months later, he let us know that unfortunately, he would not be part of the listening session. It was disheartening but PL+US, Nico, and I still held the conference call, heard everyone's stories, and made another petition so all of our voices were heard. PL+US came out with two reports, including 'Left Out' and we continued heavily campaigning online. We realized that our audience was best reached online, so we focused on the digital [sphere] to get the word out.

"We’ve been working on campaigns up until now because there was no indication that Starbucks would change their policy. So we were pleasantly surprised when the news broke that it had been expanded. When we were at Seattle Pride, we went to the march and gathered signatures there as well. To see that all of this come around and finally get recognition for everybody's hard work was really encouraging."

What do you think about the policy expansion Starbucks decided on?

"It's a great step forward, but I do know that corporate and managers get more. That is still something I would hope to change in the future — that both corporate and store individuals, supervisors and baristas, all get the same paid parental leave.

"I don’t see paid parental leave as a privilege. I don’t see it as, I have a bachelor’s. I have a doctorate. I deserve more. We’re talking about children and they have no say in whether [their parents] have degrees. All families should be treated equally when it comes to paid parental leave. Vacation and other perks? Sure. If you’re corporate, I can maybe let it slide that you deserve something else. But when it comes to families, I believe we all deserve the same amount of time with our children in those vital few weeks and months of [early] childhood, to be there to bond as a family unit so that a strong family unit is created from the beginning."

You mentioned being really involved in Facebook groups, but you’ve also worked with PL+US, an outside organization. What made you keep fighting for this, especially in the context of trying to make a change at such a big corporation, and were your direct colleagues were as unified on this issue?

"When we posted a campaign or an update on the Facebook group, the vast majority of people were very, very supportive. But there were a few comments or people who would chime in and say, 'Why are you even asking for this?' This is the frightening part because it goes to show you how trained our brains are to the American ideology that we shouldn’t deserve paid parental leave for some reason. I don’t understand why people feel that way, but there were people who would say, 'Starbucks offers so many great benefits. You guys are so ungrateful. Why would you be asking for this? They shouldn’t even give you anything; see how you would like that.'

"When me and Nico I went [to Seattle], we didn’t go with an intention to attack Starbucks. The way I saw it, they're a big corporation that's always ahead of the game in terms of the benefits they provide for their people. Why not take it a step and be the frontrunner for change in corporate America?

"What people really don’t understand is that yes, some people might [derisively] call Starbucks a fast-food chain but it is truly different from any other place I’ve worked. I don’t see other fast-food chains or major retailers have partners make a career out of this. I know a lot of people who make a career out of Starbucks because they genuinely love what the company stands for, the benefits, the people, the customers, and the relationships they build. For some of us, this isn’t a stepping stone; this is our end goal. Someone in my old store was a 20-year partner so for some people, this is their way of life; this is what grants them happiness and joy."
Illustration by Abbie Winters

Loli, 34
Human Resources Manager - Town of Frisco

What are you working to change?

"We are implementing short-term disability — paid leave for employees to take care of themselves or a newborn. That has been my first step toward showing my leadership group that it’s important to pay employees when they are taking care of a family member. There is less stress on the employee, they can perform better, and they are a more loyal employee."

When did you start working on this initiative and why?

"I kind of began when I started working here six years ago. I came from an employer where short-term disability was paid and I wanted the same here. We have very generous and robust sick leave and vacation leave [policies] here, and employees can use their sick leave to take care of a family member. You need about a year to accrue 80 hours of sick leave, which is very generous because you can accrue up to 720 hours of sick leave — but it might take you a little bit to get there. I want to offer it so that if there is an emergency, you are still taken care of. If you are a new employee, you don’t have that accrued sick time — that’s why I have been working toward getting paid short-term disability.

"That finally got approved and [became] effective in January. My next step is to get [full] paid family leave. Currently, if you need to take care of your mom, for example, short-term disability won’t pay for that. I want to offer it no matter what. My hope is to get that done in 2018."

You found this especially important coming from a previous job where this was already offered. Have employees been asking for this, or are there retention issues as a result of lacking this policy?

"We have a few committees where employees can raise their voice and their needs, and that is something they have been discussing. I had a kid a year and a half ago and thankfully I had enough sick leave to be paid through FMLA. But some people are not that lucky; other people had to come back earlier.

"You can take Family Medical Leave in many aspects, [including] if you want to use it as a new parent because it’s very important to bond with your kid. Also, life is too short and we need to have that work-life balance. But if people need to come back after six weeks — or even before then — because they don’t have the leave accrued and they need the money, that puts a lot onto the family.

"It is great that we have short-term disability, but it’s the same for an aging parent. I see a lot of that — people [whose parents] live outside of the state and they need to travel. The stress of paying bills and leaving home and working puts a big burden on the employee. But if they know they're getting paid and that their employer cares for them, they'll work hard before they [take their] leave, and will work hard after they come back. It’s a win-win."

If someone was interested in fighting for this themselves — at a company or working for a municipality as you do — what should they do?

"Talk to different people, show examples of the benefit of it, make it relevant to your audience, and get a few key players involved that have power in decision making.

"I presented a few examples from the Society for Human Resource Management, articles showing that this has become a trend in terms of what companies are doing — besides the fact that it is the right thing to do, in my opinion. Then, I got a quote. In this case, I used my [insurance] broker to see what vendors there are and how much this might cost. That is huge — as is doing this at a time that works with the budget cycle. My budget is January through December but we start working on the budget in May and the council needs to approve it in October. I need to have everything before then. Anybody that is in a position to make this change will have the budgeting piece in mind, especially if you work for a big organization. I have been trying to get the short-term disability piece in place for two years. Now my next step is the Family Medical Leave piece.

"Another tip is to look at your whole benefits package. As I mentioned, our sick leave policy is very generous, therefore, I need to look at the whole package. It's not necessarily about making cuts, but sometimes you don’t need to implement something new. Maybe it’s shuffling things around. Maybe you can take x amount of sick leave for the first month, and if you need more after that and you don't have sick leave, the Town will cover the rest. It’s not always about getting everything but how you can shuffle benefits around. Because in our case, we need to be respectful of the taxpayers’ money."

How can people who don’t work in HR find out what an insurance broker might charge?

"You can call the insurance company directly. Most of the time, brokers don’t charge much for these things because they work on commission. Sometimes you can go straight to a company like Mutual of Omaha, Liberty Mutual, Supplemental Life Insurance, or Colonial — those are some of the big ones out there; that’s for short-term disability.

"Another way is finding other employers that offer these kinds of benefits. Network with people and learn how they are doing it. Find out what paid family leave looks like for each organization, and also, what does 'family' mean at each level. For you, it might be your kid. For your coworkers, it might be a dog or cat. The definition of family has changed a lot and you have to decide how inclusive you want to be."

What were the biggest challenges to getting this done?

"What I have found is that you need to make it relevant to your audience in order to get buy-in, support, and approval. If I’m talking to the mother of a teenager, I shouldn’t be telling her, 'This is great if you’re having a kid.' She's already done that, and I might need to talk about this being great in case her kid injures himself, or that this is great if you have an aging parent.

"It’s a matter of talking to people constantly and bringing it up as soon as you see the opportunity. If an employee is quitting because they need to take care of an aging parent, you might mention that we you had this [policy], we would not have lost that person. Making those connections."
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