When Asheville residents Mackenzie and Harold Thomas were expecting their first baby last year, they also started expecting their finances to change.
Mackenzie, a massage therapist and yoga instructor, is self-employed, and Harold, assistant director of institutional research at UNC Asheville, began to consider what their income would be during the period when Mackenzie took time off to care for their newborn.
“HT [Harold] and I decided to start trying to have a baby, and at the time we didn’t look into the whole parental leave process. We said we will figure it out later,” says Mackenzie. “I knew I was not going to get paid on maternity leave while self-employed, as there are no type of maternity leave benefits for self-employed people. I knew we were going to have to save money, and so we started putting money away, because I wanted to take four months off completely.”
The Family and Medical Leave Act, established in 1993, entitles eligible employees to 12 weeks of job-protected and unpaid leave. To be eligible, employees must have worked full time for 12 months or more at companies with 50 or more employees. The law does not provide the continued income and support that many parents need in their first few months of parenthood.
Mackenzie discovered she could purchase additional health insurance with a short-term disability plan, which maternity leave falls under. However, she was not eligible because the insurance must be purchased before pregnancy. As a result, she found herself in a difficult financial situation because her individual health plan, which was cheaper than the state policy Harold carried, had a high deductible. “I also had to save money for the actual birth on top of just the maternity leave time,” she says. “Next time, when we start trying to have another baby, we will get the insurance because it is very cheap: It’s only $10 a month.”
The couple decided their only option was to keep saving. “For 10 months, we put away money at the end of each month, and we created a budget and the estimated costs of what we needed to be comfortable so as not to stress over bills and have a little extra money,” Mackenzie says.
Harold, as a staff member at UNCA, utilized his accrued time off and FMLA for the weeks after Mackenzie gave birth. He notes that faculty members receive a paid semester off, but as a staff member he had to take either sick or vacation leave. FMLA, he says, is designed chiefly for job protection, as it guarantees that employees can return to their jobs after leave.
Inspired by his own experience of navigating finances in the first few months after the birth of their baby girl, Veda Grace, Harold created a presentation last spring on paternity and maternity leave for a course in his MBA program at Western Carolina University. He says he recognized a gap in parental leave policies between the U.S. and other countries: “We are way behind when it comes to leading global economies in what we offer in regards to parental leave policy. Other countries are offering paid maternity and paternity leave. Private companies [in the U.S.] that are well-off are starting to offer more, but it’s still pretty small compared to other countries.” Harold adds that private companies frequently cite loss of productivity and profitability as reasons not to offer paid parental leave.
The U.S. is the only industrialized nation in the world that does not have paid parental leave, but a Fortune–Morning Consult poll reveals that 83 percent of Democrats and 71 percent of Republicans support a national paid leave policy.
The issue of parental leave captured public attention last year when the president’s daughter and adviser Ivanka Trump advocated for paid parental leave. Trump campaigned for six weeks of paid maternity leave, but now the administration’s budget calls for six weeks of paid leave for mothers, fathers and new adoptive parents. To date there has been no progress in implementing the plan.
Aeroflow Healthcare, with corporate headquarters in South Asheville, is a company that offers paid leave for its 200 or so employees.
Aeroflow announced in November that it will offer an expanded parental leave policy. Before the new policy, the company offered two weeks of paid time for maternity and paternity leave. Katie Combs, chief culture officer at Aeroflow, spent time surveying and talking to families to learn about the struggles of the first year of parenthood. The result was six weeks of paid time off for maternity leave (for both adoptive and birth mothers) and two weeks paid time off for spouses and partners, as well as a year’s supply of free diapers, up to $300 for use of a pre- or post-partum doula, a private lactation room with hospital-grade breast pump, a refrigerator to store milk and a comfortable space to pump.
“We have a lot of young moms at our company, and we thought this would be a cool thing to be able to offer to them, as they do so much for us,” she says. “We always pride ourselves as a dynamic organization, and we wanted to redesign the benefits and extend maternity time, but we also wanted to consider what else we can do and what else matters to new moms. So far, people are pretty excited, maybe moreso about the free diapers than anything else.”
Jennifer Jordan, founder and director of the Mom and Baby division (now Aeroflow Breastpumps) at Aeroflow Healthcare, says, “We primarily based our decision to extend our parental leave policy by comparing company leave policies in the United States. We are a little behind other countries, and our goal is to be more progressive for maternity benefits. It’s hard when it’s not mandated. We thought, ‘What are some of the big thinkers doing, even though we are on a smaller scale?’ We wanted to make sure every new parent had a chance to spend time with their newborn, so, regardless, everyone has paid parental leave. We support mothers, and we practice what we preach.”
The expanded parental leave policy at Aeroflow was an immediate boost to employee morale, says Combs, who surveys employees frequently about what is working and what could be improved at the company. “Maternity benefits are something that has come up for the last couple years, and it was one of our goals to do more for employees. It costs the company a little more, but we can’t do things for our patients unless we take care of our employees. The result is worth it.”
Aeroflow extends the same parental leave policy to adoptive parents and also provides adoption assistance to help reimburse the cost of adoption.
Combs says that the new policy helps retain employees, which offsets the cost of hiring someone new and getting them up to speed. “Yes, sometimes someone out on parental leave may put some strain and stress on a work team,” she adds, “but the team wants to do extra work and help out colleagues, as they know their friend is home spending time with their new baby. Occasionally, we need to do cross training and prepare for absences, but these parents are coming back happy and excited, and that value is so much higher.”
Will Yeiser, founder and executive director of the Asheville-based French Broad River Academy, a middle school that combines adventure education with classroom academics, says the school’s parental leave policy, implemented this past August, offers full-time employees up to 12 consecutive weeks of paid leave for maternity, paternity or adoption. At the end of the paid leave, employees can return for 20 hours a week for a four-week period as a transition period. “We were thinking of moms nursing, so they can teach here and then go home if they need to,” he says.
Yeiser says the administrative team at the academy crafted a policy that was driven by the goal of retaining their most important asset — their staff. “We did some research for best practices for leave policies that result in long-term retention of staff, which drove our decision to create a policy for 12 weeks of paid time off. We put a lot of trust and faith in our employees, and we want them to spend that time with their significant other and newborn child. We want to keep our teachers forever, and we thought, ‘What is the best way to do that?’”
Yeiser and his staff, inspired by the Patagonia company’s parental leave policy, hope to eventually have an even more extensive paternity and maternity leave policy as well as onsite child care. “Patagonia wants kids close to the company campus to be close to the parents and for mothers to nurse the babies. It is an incredible message from the company … talk about retention!
“People are excited and supportive of the policy,” says Yeiser. “The teacher who is on paternity leave right now expressed gratitude to [be able to] hold his wife and baby.”
French Broad River Academy