Eduardo Mendoza, who was Service Manager at Pep Boys while his wife was pregnant with his second child, didn’t give much consideration to parental leave. He figured he’d squeeze what he could out of his employer while his wife recovered but anticipated that members of his extended family would offer support after he went back to the store. When his wife went into labor earlier than expected, Mendoza simply asked his manager, a father himself, if he could take some time off. The boss said to take a week, unpaid.
Mendoza was surprised. He’d assumed, wrongly, that he’d be entitled to at least some paid leave. But Mendoza,, like many men in service industry jobs, didn’t have parental leave baked into his benefits package. That’s precisely what he did.
Mendoza’s experience was uniquely his own. It was always going to be. There is no universal experience of parental leave for American fathers not only because there isn’t a national policy, but also because there are endless mitigating circumstances and circumventions. As long as there’s limited political pressure on big businesses, perverse incentives for small businesses and entrepreneurs, and limited thinking around the long-term ramifications of turnover and work-first office cultures, paternity leave will remain a hard-to-navigate privilege. American dads remain alone together.
Big Businesses With Small Benefits
The vast majority of the nearly 8,000 respondents to a recent Pew Research poll on family and medical leave agreed that employers should pay for at least some parental leave. Some 82 percent of respondents said mothers should get paid leave and 69 percent said fathers should as well. Just over half of the respondents believed that the government should require employers to provide paid parental and medical leave.
The majority of the Pew survey’s respondents felt that people like Eduardo Mendoza, who works for a large company with over 10,000 employees, should have access to paid parental leave. Even those concerned with the potential deleterious effects of offering paternity leave weren’t focussed on business like Pep Boys. Their concerns were largely about the potential effect of mandatory policies on small businesses, which 58 percent of respondents feared would be harmed by a requirement.
Give that 86 percent of American businesses have under 20 employees and 99.7 percent have under 500, it’s fair to suggest Mendoza’s unpleasant surprise was the result of a political reluctance to inflict any potential financial hardship on small businesses. Big businesses that don’t offer paternity leave are bucking a consensus, taking advantage of a loophole left open for small players. But those semantics didn’t buy Mendoza more time with his baby daughter.
Baby Bonding Vs. Financial Security
The truth is that many small business owners are forced to see paternity leave as part of a difficult financial equation, especially when they themselves are preparing to become fathers or mothers. The very real short- and long-term benefits of being with an infant or a partner must be weighed against the potential consequences of time off, which can seem dire. Because America, unlike almost every other developed nation on the planet, doesn’t offer state-sponsored benefits for new parents, the math leads to difficult choices.
When Dale Doire’s first child was born, he took a week off from working at the electrical contracting business he owned. His wife was still working outside the home so he didn’t feel the pressure of being the sole provider for his growing family. But he did feel the pressure to look after his employees. Does he regret not taking more time? Not really. He feels like he made the best decision for both his family and his business by going back to work as soon as his wife could get along without him.
When Doire’s second child was born three years after his first, his wife quit her job to take care of the kids and run the administrative end of Doire Electric. Taking more time off would have been an irresponsible decision for the business and thus for the family. He took a week off.
“There was no question about how I would handle it that time,” he says.
Like 23 percent of the respondents to the Pew Study, Doire’s request for paternity leave had been rejected by his boss. That boss just happened to be him.
Dale’s abbreviate leaves are illustrative of the fact that the limited progress on parental leave — the percentage of employers offering full pay during leave has dropped from 17 percent in 2005 to 10 percent last year — is not merely the result of an empathy gap. It’s the result of the number of small American businesses that exist on a knife’s edge and a side effect of a business culture that emphasizes teamwork. Sometimes it’s even the result of responsible decision making, even selflessness.
Smart Businesses Uncover Hidden Costs
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistic, some 13.5 million Americans work in the restaurant and hospitality sector, part of the perpetually growing service industry. Even by service industry standard, restaurants often offer meager benefits. According to the Economic Policy Instituted, nearly 17 percent of restaurant workers live below the poverty line, as compared to 6 percent of workers in other industries. While 49 percent of workers in other industries receive health insurance from their employers, only 14 percent of restaurant workers do. If technology companies are leading the charge on paternity leave and benefits for parents, restaurants are bringing up the rear.
Noah Hershman knew that when he started rising through the ranks from Line Cook to Executive Chef at San Diego’s Snooze, one of a chain of restaurants operated out of Denver. Clearly talented, Hershman could have moved on, but he opted to stay for the same reason many of his co-workers had made the same decision. He says Snooze does its “absolute best to provide great benefits, competitive salaries and wages, and a fun and inviting work environment.”
In an industry with average annual turnover rates of 72 percent, Snooze is an exception to the rule. It offers employees two weeks of paternity leave and they take it. “Everyone does,” says Hershman. “The kind of people we hire tend to put a high value on family and work-life balance.”
Those hiring decisions and the comprehensive benefits packages aren’t just a cultural issue. Benefits decrease turnover among those that use them and turnover is expensive. A 2014 Cornell study based on a survey of 1,150 restaurant managers around the US suggests found that at “restaurants that invest little in HR practices, employees typically stay for only 3.6 years.” At restaurants that invested in benefits, that number jumped to 6.3 years. Those businesses limited turnover while limiting the chances of fraud.
Hershman likes his job and he plans to keep doing it. That’s good news for him and maybe even better news for his bosses.
Leave is Just the Beginning
Rob Cordeau had been working for the wireless technology company Qualcomm for twelve years when his wife got pregnant. His colleagues and his boss were aware of the years-long struggle with infertility that they had overcome. When he asked for additional time — four weeks of leave cobbled together using accrued vacation time and sick days — he was given the green light. He went home to help his wife, who’d fought through a difficult pregnancy and was suffering from postpartum depression. It wasn’t long before his team members started asking him when he was coming back.
“Almost none of the men took more than a week off when their kids were born and a lot of them only took one or two days off,” he says, adding that when he returned a month later “things were never the same.”
As a new dad, Cordeau was no longer willing to put in the 50-60 hour weeks he did before his daughter was born. At his level in the company, someone who worked a mere 40 hours a week was not considered a team player. There were other factors involved, Cordeau says, but the pressure he felt was a big reason he left Qualcomm to work for a smaller company. Today, he works fewer hours for a smaller company. He gets paid less and he’s much happier.
Paternity leave is not, as Cordeau discovered, a panacea. He was given time off by his company, but not given the leeway to look after his family as he saw fit. Whether or not the pressure he felt was a product of managerial decisions, corporate culture, or his own perception of those two things, it prevented him from handling parenthood on his own terms. The company could have had a more supportive leave policy and he still would have struggled.
How an individual relates to their employers and their company as a hard to measure, but it is the critical ingredient that allows for post-parent leave success.
The Long and Short of It
Eduardo Mendoza was a Marine Corps Reservist without a day job when his son was born. The spent three months together. That time substantively changed their relationship. He couldn’t offer his daughter the same kind of attention and that also substantively change their relationship.
“I feel like I didn’t get the chance to bond with Adriana the way I did with Manuel,“ Mendoza says. “In fact, she was kind of scared of me when she was younger … Because my dad takes care of her so much, I feel like she thinks of her grandfather as more of a dad than me.”
When it comes to decisions about leave, there are thousands of variables and many more potential consequences. There is no one experience for fathers, no universal narrative. It’s not clear if this is because there is not a unifying national policy or why there is no unifying national policy. But it is clear that fathers do better at home and at the office when they have help.