Looking at Fatherly’s annual rankings of the “50 Best Places to Work for New Dads,” it’s impossible not to confront a hard question: Is paid parental leave a perk for the already well-paid? The short answer is yes. Employees who made more than $75,000 are twice as likely to have the benefit than workers who make less than $30,000, according to a 2017 PL+US report. The longer answer is also yes, but there are subtleties to that second affirmation and some reasons to believe that this could potentially change.
Of the 32 companies that provided Fatherly with figures — some did so on background or later questioned previously supplied numbers — 25 had a median salary of over $70,000. The average American salary for a 40-hour-a-week worker is $44,564.
The reason that well-to-do workers also receive attractive parental benefits isn’t mysterious. Companies have to fight for talent and leave allows employers to not only attract workers with options, but — and this is more important — retain them. Whereas low-wage workers are understood to be replaceable, highly paid workers are not (or the cost of recruitment and replacement represent a serious issue).
The reality, though, is that any form of the benefit is the exception, not the rule. In 2017, 15 percent of all workers had access to paid family leave, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. “Of that percentage, the number of men who get paid leave is unclear but clearly abysmal,” says Amy Beacom, founder and CEO of Center for Parental Leave Leadership.
Because employers can get away with not offering new fathers, in particular, leave, they do. This tends to change only in environments where workers are assumed to be self-starting and diligent, where the perk is understood as a way of creating a more productive work environment rather than as an excuse for time off. Management-level employees and better educated workers are more broadly assumed to be able to take on the responsibility of work-life balance. Thus, companies with a disproportionate number of highly paid workers tend to offer better leave options (a fact that is also affected by wage laws in cities, notably New York and San Francisco, that attract these workers).
According to Gary Barker, president and CEO of Promundo-US, TK, the default attitude with lower wage employees is “I don’t have to give it to you” and the default attitude with higher wage employees is “He’ll throw himself back into work. He’ll always be a company man.”
This difficult situation is made more difficult by cultural norms and gendered pressures. A recent Promundo survey showed that significantly more fathers than mothers believed they had to work at least some of the time during a leave. The reason for this seems to be both that “bonding” is not accepted as a viable use of a man’s time and that men still tend to have higher paying jobs than women (dynamics in same-sex couples are slightly different).
Company size also plays a major role. According the 2017 Bureau of Labor Statistics report, 10 percent of workers at companies with fewer than 50 employees got paid family leave; at companies with 500 or more workers, it was 24 percent. The companies on Fatherly’s list are uniformly large and, with very few exceptions, growing. Scale makes it possible for companies to give employees time off without risking a drop in productivity. There’s a very particular reason for this: Some 76 percent of companies cover work by assigning it to others in-house, according to the Department of Labor. This is only possible, ultimately, with significant staff. In a five-person shop, one person is 20 percent. Covering that loss is hard.
“They flexibility, but they don’t have the resources to survive,” Beacom says.
The barrier to workers, particularly lower paying ones, getting leave is also generational. Older executives have either made the policy or they maintain it. They didn’t take leave for their kids and don’t see the benefit. State and city governments could provide proof of what actually happens in the coming years. California and New York City recently started offering the same paid leave for men and women, and, in 2020, Washington, D.C. will do the same. The shift could be furthered as younger executives take more C-level positions, Beacom says.
Generation shifts may be the force for change that eventually leads to less well-compensated workers finally receive meaningful parental benefits. In 2016, Millennial women accounted for 82 percent of the births in the United States, and both Millennial men and women have different attitudes, with both wanting to parent and work equally, and, with that, being willing to leave a company that doesn’t support that approach.
“The old guard at companies is facing a big push,” Beacom says. “The expectations have changed. They’re not just giving their life to the company store.”