working women

Employers Must Offer Equal “Parental” Leave

Today, the EEOC (i.e. the federal agency charged with enforcing laws against workforce discrimination) released new guidance regarding pregnancy discrimination.  The last time they did this was 1983.  These new guidelines were presumably released because the number of EEOC charges alleging pregnancy discrimination have increased substantially in the past several years (37% between 1997 and 2013).

Most of the guidance was not very earth-shattering but there was one area that struck me:  the EEOC states that employers who offer “parental leave” (as distinct from “medical leave”) must offer that leave to men and women equally.  In other words, if an employer offers an employee leave (paid or unpaid) for medical recovery, birth and recuperation, that can be offered to the birthing parent (aka a woman) in whatever quantity the employer wishes.  But if additional leave is offered for child-care or bonding, it should be distinctly designated as “parental” leave, and must be offered on the same terms to women and men.  (The full text is here so scroll down to see Examples 17 and 18).

What’s exciting and interesting about this is that I don’t believe most companies’ maternity leave policy specifically designates a time for medical recovery versus childcare/bonding.  If companies start complying with the EEOC guidance and offer equal leave to the non-birth parent, then 1 of 2 things may happen:

1.  The non-birthing parent may receive more leave than the company policy previously provided (i.e. good news for those of us who believe partner/paternity leave is important and has been sidelined).

2.  The birthing parent may receive less leave than the company presently offers (i.e. bad news for those of us who think most companies are not particularly generous with maternity leave in the first place).  This could happen because the employer starts worrying that equal parental leave rights means too many employees will start actually taking it and reduces the total leave available.  Similarly, a company that previously was considering offering maternity leave may decide to offer either zero or reduced leave because they’re worried about the costs of offering leave on the same term to mothers and fathers.

I hope that most companies don’t reduce maternity leave (its a hard message for HR to deliver, after all) and excited that this new guidance recognizes the importance of treating both male and female parents equally!  I’ll keep watching this space…



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