Parental Leave Precautions

By Bryan Stillwagon

Last week, Coca-Cola announced that many new parents at the company (domestic non-bargaining employees) will soon be eligible for six weeks of paid leave. The benefits, which supplement existing short-term disability benefits for birth mothers, will be available to mothers and fathers, adoptive and foster parents, and same-sex couples. The announcement comes as the nationwide conversation about parental leave intensifies. According to SHRM, 21 percent of large U.S. corporations offered paid maternity leave in 2015, up from 12 percent in 2014.

If your company is considering an expanded leave program, ensure those valuable benefits don’t result in legal headaches down the road. When parental leave benefits distinguish between protected categories, or are otherwise incongruent with similar forms of leave benefits for other reasons, they run the risk of violating various discrimination laws, including Title VII, the Pregnancy Discrimination Act, and the Family and Medical Leave Act, in addition to state and local laws that might provide additional rights. At a minimum, policies that provide leave beyond a birth mother’s incapacitation due to pregnancy or labor should be gender-neutral and not based on stereotypes of a mother’s role, a father’s role, or a family’s composition. Consideration must also be given to the impact parental leave will have on other benefits, such as short-term disability, as well as the impact it will have on unionized employees and upcoming bargaining. And, of course, whenever you roll out a new benefit not required by law, consider asking employees for some form of quid pro quo, such as a restrictive covenant in exchange for the benefit.

Even with the best of intentions, companies that implement unfair or discriminatory policies risk negating the goodwill they are trying to build. If it’s worth doing, it’s worth doing right.