When Austin city government officials set up a parental leave program for municipal employees in 2013, they managed to emulate European policies while making things bigger in Texas. The city embraced a program offering employees who become parents (whether via biological birth or bureaucratic adoption) up to 30 working days out of the office at 100% of their usual pay. In a country notoriously stingy with parental leave, that offering rivaled perks from forward-looking Fortune 500 and high-tech companies. Though some voters had reservations initially, the program has matured into something close–at least in the context of city governance–to an unmitigated success.
“I think that if employers had their way, they’d actively discourage men from taking leave. They either don’t think it’s important, or they think their business is more important,” says Bryan Dore, who took the full six weeks of leave when his wife gave birth to their daughter in 2015. “The city of Austin is going in the right direction by affirmatively providing paid leave. It’s like they’re saying ‘You should do this,’ not ‘You can do this.’”
Dore has a front row seat to the cost-benefit analysis of the leave policy. He’s the city’s Compensation Manager. But Dore is also a private citizen and a father and, in that role, he’s concerned about the costs to children, fathers, and mothers of punting on parental leave. He’s aware of how far the United States has lagged behind on the issue and that, in the broader context of developed countries, the Austin project is very little very late–which is not to say that it is in any way insignificant.
Joyce Beebe, a research fellow at the Baker Institute Center for Public Finance, has studied parental leave at length and believes that the most unusual part of the Austin equation is the pay. Full pay is not normal, as “most organizations see it as a financial burden.” In California, Rhode Island, and New Jersey, states with parental leave policies, Beebe has found that most programs allow for six to eight weeks out of the office at 60 to 70 percent pay. (“Don’t make the leave too long,” she kind of jokes, “or else people won’t want to come back.”) But top-notch institutions and tech companies are increasingly offering compelling parental leave programs as a major employee benefit, for sake of competing for talent.
In other words, Austin took an unusual approach and got aggressive about courting the best workers available. Most city governments don’t do that, which is a problem because it leads to worker attrition and the exit of institutional knowledge. There’s a reason that officials now measure the health of the program in terms of the number of people, specifically fathers, availing themselves of it.
“So far, 798 fathers have availed themselves of the parental leave program,” says Austin city council member Kathie Tovo. “Rather than take all their time straight away, I’ve heard anecdotally that some work half days to draw more slowly from their total allotment of 240 hours of leave. Our employees appreciate it, and the response has been overwhelmingly positive.”
Research has shown that a robust, organization-wide parental leave program that doesn’t concern itself with the gender of a parent lays the framework for new dads to be in tune with their growing family. Research has also shown that the presence of fathers makes a massive difference to the health and development of children. In a sense, Austin is taking care of its next generation by taking care of its over 15,000 employees.
When Austin finance manager Matthew Clites began his leave in November 2016 to welcome his new daughter to the family, he was pleased by how straightforward it was.
“It was pretty painless. There were maybe two documents I had to get signed. I also supplied verification of birth facts, which is a standard form given to you at the hospital,” he remembers. “The only thing my supervisor required from me was a list of my duties and who was going to be taking them over while I was gone. I had all my energy for my daughter.”
Clites’s wife took nine weeks of unpaid leave from her job, and had to use vacation time to do so. That represented a sharp contrast as she is also a government worker. The difference? She works for the state of Texas. Hers was the more typical experience.
“It was a very valuable benefit to me to have some one-on-one bonding time, and to get used to the lifestyle change,” Clites adds.
What is he doing on the other side of that major transition? Well, he’s working for the city of Austin. He’s happy about that.