What a parent-friendly workplace looks like
by Eliza Siegel — 10 minutes
Like many systemic issues in the U.S., the question of how parent-friendly workplaces are falls along classed, raced, and gendered lines. Unlike most other wealthy nations, the U.S. does not have federally mandated paid parental leave or medical leave, deferring instead to the discretion of companies and private workplaces, as well as states, to decide these policies. This means that wealthy corporations, where white workers are overrepresented in high-level positions, have made strides toward creating workplaces that appeal to parents. Low-wage jobs, which are disproportionately held by Black workers and workers of color, are much less likely to implement parent-friendly policies, further stratifying already unequal workplaces.
But inequalities don’t need to persist—Many companies have the means and resources to create a more inclusive and overall more productive, nurturing workplace. Looking at the workplace through a parent-friendly lens can lead to higher employee retention, better morale, and happier employees.
Pyn compiled a list of 10 elements integral to a parent-friendly workplace. The list was sourced from recommendations and policy proposals from Unicef and other family-focused agencies.
Anti-discrimination policies for pregnant people
Anti-discrimination policies protecting pregnant workers have been in place since 1978, when the Pregnancy Discrimination Act (PDA) was passed as an amendment to the 1964 Civil Rights Act. The act applies to all aspects of employment, including discriminatory hiring practices, unjust firing, pay, and leave. Instances of pregnancy discrimination continue to be brought before the Supreme Court. However, as more modern cases like Young v. UPS (2015) demonstrate, protections like reasonable workplace accommodations for pregnant workers are still being denied. Low-wage workers and workers of color experience particularly high rates of pregnancy discrimination.
Pregnant trans and queer workers are often left out of the conversation of pregnancy discrimination, leaving them vulnerable to unfair treatment. This is due in part to the exclusionary language of anti-pregnancy discrimination policies, which only specify cisgender women as experiencing pregnancy. LGBTQIA+ workers already face discrimination in the workplace at staggering levels: In 2015, 77% of trans workers in the U.S. actively took measures to avoid mistreatment at work, including hiding their gender identity, delaying their transition, or quitting their jobs. Only as recently as 2021 did the Supreme Court rule that the Civil Rights Act offers workplace protections for trans and gay workers.
It goes without saying that unsafe or stressful work environments are not places where employees thrive, and the reverse is also true: Creating equitable workplaces isn’t just the right thing to do, but it results in better employee motivation, talent attraction and retention, and financially stronger companies. Employer support for parents with paid leave and flexibility results in those employers being more likely to return to work, meaning companies can retain expertise without as much turnover.
Fertility and adoption benefits
Fertility and adoption benefits—which include in vitro fertilization (IVF) coverage, adoption reimbursements, and surrogacy benefits—are important in creating parent-friendly workplaces that foster diverse and inclusive workforces. These benefits are becoming more common among large corporations, particularly in the tech sector at companies like Google, Microsoft, and Salesforce. Fertility benefits are much more common than adoption benefits within organizations that offer such perks; however, this is a trend that negatively impacts LGBTQIA+ workers who want or need to adopt in order to start a family.
A large disparity also exists between those who have fertility benefits and those who do not. Only a handful of states mandate fertility coverage in insurance. While roughly 24% of U.S. employers offer comprehensive fertility benefits, the majority of employers do not offer any fertility benefits. As IVF treatments cost $21,600 per cycle on average, and adoptions cost between $30,000 and $60,000, such options can be cost prohibitive for couples or individuals who do not have fertility or adoption benefits.
Substantial paid parental leave
Family leave is vital for early parent-child bonding, and leads to improved outcomes for children. The U.S. lags behind as the only wealthy country that does not offer a federal paid parental-leave program. While the Family and Medical Leave Act guarantees some employees 12 weeks of unpaid leave, it is up to the discretion of private companies to offer paid parental leave. Accordingly, only 21% of U.S. workers have access to paid family leave through their work, and a mere 8% of low-wage earners, made up disproportionately of workers of color, have access to such benefits.
Men are less likely to be eligible for paid paternity leave than women, and on a cultural level, men are not encouraged to take as much time off for the birth of a child as women. Only three states provide mothers and fathers with paid family leave equally: California, New Jersey, and Rhode Island. Studies have shown that paid leave leads to good outcomes for all workers, and is good for the larger economy as well: Women are more likely to return to their jobs after taking leave instead of leaving the labor force, and because they return to the same job, maintain their pre-leave wage and keep the potential for higher future earnings. Another policy implemented in some workplaces is allowing parents to return to work on a part-time basis before they resume full-time hours, allowing them to gradually transition to life as a working parent.
On top of parental leave for mothers and fathers, some companies have gained attention for incorporating leave for workers who have experienced miscarriages or stillbirths, sometimes referred to as “pregnancy loss leave.” This provides employees with time to physically recover and mourn their loss, all while knowing they will have a job to return to.
Daycare assistance for parents
According to the Economic Policy Institute, parents with kids under the age of 5 cumulatively spend $42 billion for early child care and education every year. And lower- and middle-income families spend a larger proportion of their income on childcare than wealthier families and are likelier to live in child care deserts. Despite government assistance programs like the Child Care and Development Fund, the unaffordability of child care services often forces families to make impossible decisions between paying for childcare and cutting down work hours or quitting jobs to take care of their kids. Low-income families often must rely on unpaid childcare from their families, friends, or neighbors in order to maintain their careers. The high cost of child care disproportionately impacts families of color, and the decision to sacrifice work opportunities in order to take care of young children more frequently falls to women.
Recently, in part due to increased difficulties imposed by the COVID-19 pandemic, companies are beginning to offer child care benefits like babysitting stipends. The pandemic has led to more women than men leaving the workforce: Pew Research found that from February 2020 to February 2021, 3.1% of women dropped out of the labor force compared to 2.1% of men in that same time period.
President Biden’s infrastructure plan calls for payments made directly to families so they spend no more than 7% of their income on child care. A mountain of studies show how critical child care is, with good early childhood programs leading to “substantial beneficial impacts on health, children's future labor incomes, crime, education, and mothers’ labor incomes, with greater monetized benefits for males,” according to a National Bureau of Economic Research study.
Emergency medical leave
The U.S. has historically lagged behind other wealthy countries in its lack of federal paid medical leave policies. The onset of the COVID-19 pandemic made the need for paid medical leave more apparent, which led to the passage of the temporary Families First Coronavirus Response Act. The act guaranteed some employees two weeks or 80 hours of paid sick leave if ill with coronavirus or caring for someone who was. This provision expired at the end of 2020, however, leaving workers to the mercy of their employers’ leave policies.
Even without the added health and safety risks of the pandemic, guaranteed paid medical leave is a necessity for parent-friendly workplaces, particularly for workers who do not have the option to work remotely. If a child becomes ill, particularly for an extended period of time, it is vital for a parent to be able to take care of their child with the knowledge that their job and financial situation is secure.
Polling shows widespread bipartisan support for a federal paid medical leave program. As with other forms of paid leave, paid medical leave benefits both employees and employers, improving retention, boosting productivity, and increasing overall labor force participation.
Family-friendly office environment
Family-friendly office environments make it possible for employees to bring their kids to work by providing in-office daycares or playrooms. This type of solution takes into account a number of issues: lack of widespread access to quality and affordable child care services, convenience and ease for parents, attracting a diverse range of candidates for jobs that might not otherwise have been possible for workers with caretaking responsibilities, and allowing mothers to more easily nurse. For parents without private transportation, as well as those with limited access to public transportation, offering on-site childcare takes away the obstacle of dropping their children off at a separate location during their commute.
Large companies like Nike, Boeing, and Proctor and Gamble offer on-site daycare services to their employees. Roughly half of colleges in the U.S. offer some kind of daycare services for students and faculty, as do some hospitals.
A study published in the Journal of Managerial Psychology found among employees whose companies offered on-site child care, performance was higher and rates of missing work lower when compared to parents using off-site child care—and, notably, those rates remained when compared to employees who had no children. The finding demonstrates how valuable family-friendly offices can be for both employers and employees.
Whether or not a company offers on-site childcare, it is highly important to provide clear policies and safe spaces for mothers to pump or nurse.
Flexible work schedule, from PTO to remote
One seemingly lasting effect of the pandemic is the changed culture of work. The transition for many to remote work has changed peoples’ relationship to work, and none more so than parents’. Flexible work schedules and working part of the week from home have been seen as beneficial changes for families, especially those who were excluded from the traditionally rigid parameters of in-person work. Remote work has not proven wholly beneficial for families, however. In some ways, more time at home has reinforced already-entrenched gender roles. During the pandemic, women working from home were three times more likely to be their child’s primary caretaker than men working from home, and women did consistently more housework while working from home. Still, one recent study found that working women with childcare responsibilities are 32% less likely to leave their jobs if they’re able to work from home.
Job sharing that reduces overall workload on parents
Historically, occupying a high-level position at a company or organization has meant putting in grueling hours and sacrificing an even work-life balance. The advent of job sharing, which involves two employees sharing a single position, thus working about half the time, has started to shift this standard toward a more parent-friendly configuration. Job sharing enables people to continue in their preferred position while having more time to spend with children and take care of responsibilities. Large corporations like Target, General Electric, and Deloitte have informally incorporated job sharing into their models.
Adequate wages representing a family’s cost of living
The federal minimum wage in the U.S. has been $7.25 since 2009, and has lost 21% of its value during those 12 years when adjusted for the rising cost of living and inflation. Full-time, minimum-wage workers earn roughly $15,000 a year before taxes. As of 2021, the U.S. poverty threshold is $26,500 for a household of four, which means that a household of four with one working member would fall significantly under the poverty line, and with two working members, would barely surpass the threshold. Meanwhile, the 2019 Consumer Expenditure Survey estimates the average annual cost of living for a family of four to be $85,139.
While many states have raised their minimum wages above $7.25, national efforts to raise the federal wage have stalled. The Raise the Wage Act of 2021, which failed to pass in the Senate in March, would have raised the federal minimum wage gradually to $15 by 2025. This would have the effect of lifting 3.7 million people out of poverty and would increase the earnings of 31% of Black workers and 26% of Hispanic workers.
Programs, support, and activities for parents and kids
Early childhood development refers to the years from birth to around the age of 3, when children undergo crucial foundational growth and learning. Healthy development during this time is linked to educational achievement, health, and relationship-building skills later in life. Companies such as LinkedIn have started parent support groups on social media to exchange resources, ideas, and advice, as well as tutoring support. Other companies, including Twitter and Sun Life U.S., created educational virtual camps for children of employees. Stamps.com even offers virtual entertainment for kids of parents juggling working from home and caring for their children, particularly during the pandemic.