U.S. presidential campaign shines light on key issue for parents

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With Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump competing to win over working families, the issue of parental leave is again in the spotlight. The Democratic presidential nominee is vowing to guarantee at least 12 paid weeks off to care for a new child, while Ivanka Trump, the Republican nominee's daughter, said in speech during the Republican National Convention that "policies that allow women with children to thrive should not be novelties."

It's a nice thought. The U.S. remains the only developed country in the world that does not require employers to offer paid maternity leave. Although a handful of states and cities around the country have enacted their own paid-leave mandates, that has given rise to a patchwork of protections for workers.

But a shift in the political and legal landscape, along with a move by some bellwether companies to offer such benefits, could pave the way for wider adoption of paid leave around the U.S.

In April, two groundbreaking parental-leave laws were passed on opposite sides of the country. New York became the fourth state to offer some form of paid parental leave to residents. New York's program will compensate parents for up to 12 weeks of leave, reportedly twice what is covered in the most-generous states. San Francisco, meanwhile, became the first U.S. city to require employers to give workers six weeks of fully paid parental leave.

The Family and Medical Leave Act, enacted in 1993, allows employees to take up to 12 weeks a year of unpaid leave to care for a newborn or sick family member. But it doesn't cover many part-time workers and excludes employees of small businesses, defined as companies with fewer than 50 employees.

Regardless of the uneven legal landscape, companies in the U.S. and abroad are beginning to expand their parental-leave benefits, according to a study by consulting firm Mercer. Such benefits have become "a front-line tool in the battle to attract, develop and retain the right talent," according to the study, whose findings are based on an analysis of the practices of more than 1,200 companies worldwide.

Some 36 percent of the companies offer paid paternity leave above statutory requirements, and the same percentage provide adoption leave beyond what's required by law, according to the study.

Not surprisingly, support for paid parental leave is coming from rank-and-file employees. Coca-Cola (KO) earlier this year announced an enhanced parental leave policy for its U.S. workers that the beverage giant said was championed by a group of millennial employees tasked with coming up with ideas for attracting and retaining younger workers.

Starting in January, all new parents at Coke -- including fathers, adoptive and foster parents -- will be entitled to six weeks of paid leave. The benefits, not available to Coke's unionized workers, supplement the six to eight weeks of paid leave Coke currently provides to birth mothers.

Coke is hardly alone in its efforts to attract and retain talent, particularly millennials, by beefing up its parental leave benefits. Mercer found that 52 percent of U.S. companies analyzed for its study offer paid maternity leave to their employees that goes beyond what's required by law.

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Slightly more than a third (36 percent) of companies that participated in the study have a parental-leave policy that applies to all the regions in which they operate. Of the two-thirds of companies without a so-called global policy on parental leave, some 12 percent are considering implementing one. Only 19 percent of companies have a global policy that includes all four types of leave, namely maternity, paternity, adoption and parental.

In addition to traditional programs, such as basic maternal leave, many companies are rolling out, or considering, innovative practices, according to the Mercer report. These range from reduced schedules for new parents returning to work to "keep-in-touch" lunches for employees on leave.

"You can't force employees on leave to come to the office or check their email [while on leave], but if they are open to having lunch [with a manager], that's a great way to keep them connected and ensure they return to work in a meaningful way," said Pam Jeffords, a partner at Mercer.

Despite such programs, Jeffords concedes that U.S. companies are still laggards compared with their corporate counterparts in many other countries when it comes to paying workers after the birth of a child.

Among the 336 U.S. companies that participated in the Mercer study and provide some form of maternity leave, the average number of fully paid days off is 35, while the average number of unpaid days is 32. For companies that provide partially paid days, the average number of such days is 15.

Many American workers use their vacation days and sick time in order to continue collecting a paycheck during maternity leave, Jeffords said. And upper-level executives tend to have more generous vacation and sick-time benefits than their underlings.

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By contrast, some studies have shown that the vast majority of working Americans don't get any paid family leave, while those who do are more likely to be high-wage workers. According to the left-leaning Economic Policy Institute, 23 percent of workers at the top of the income ladder have access to paid family leave, while only 4 percent of workers at the bottom get that benefit.

Some of the most progressive companies on the parental-leave front hail from the tech and financial-services sectors, where there is strong competition to attract and retain millennial workers. Both men and women of that generation view parental leave as an important benefit, Jeffords said.

Even within those sectors, progress on parental leave hasn't been entirely smooth sailing.

Last year, for instance, Netflix (NFLX) announced that it would give its salaried employees up to 12 months of paid parental leave to take at their own discretion. Initially, the new policy didn't cover employees who work on the DVD side of the business, many of whom are paid hourly.

But the online video company later reversed its decision after facing backlash about the lopsided initial policy. It announced that at the beginning of this year hourly workers would get paid parental leave at 100 percent of pay, with the amount of time off depending on which part of the company they work for.