Paid family leave policies take hold in Lehigh Valley

Dawn Ouellette Nixon//October 31, 2019

Paid family leave policies take hold in Lehigh Valley

Dawn Ouellette Nixon//October 31, 2019

Charles Vail is a busy working dad. Together, with his wife Scheila, he raises a bubbly 3-year-old girl and two active 2-year-old twin boys.

With a bustling family life, it’s important to Vail that he work for a company that puts family first.  He found one, he says, in Merrill Lynch, the financial advisory firm, where, over the past 15 years he’s built a thriving career as a wealth management adviser, a job that allows him the flexibility to make time for his family.

Family first is especially important to the Vails now as they prepare for the birth of their newest addition. Scheila, a stay-at-home mom, is due in December.

Scheila and Charles Vail with their children. Charles, who works for Merrill Lynch, plans to use the company’s paid parental leave benefit when their fourth child is born next month. The policy provides peace of mind, he says. – Dawn Ouellette Nixon

Unlike the many of new working parents in Pennsylvania, the Vails are able to take advantage of a generous parental-leave policy. Merrill Lynch provides up to four months paid time off after the birth of a child to both moms and dads.

 The Vails are in a somewhat unique situation because Pennsylvania doesn’t have many statewide laws regarding parental leave, said Samantha Bononno, an attorney with Fisher Phillips, a national boutique labor law firm with offices throughout the nation.

“There is the Family Medical Leave Act,” Bononno says, “which is a federal statewide statute that provides up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave. Any employer in the U.S. with more than 50 employees must provide that. And for a lot of employees, that is the only option.”

While there are companies that offer some paid leave, most only offer paid maternity leave, Bononno said. Fathers or same sex parent partners are forced to take unpaid time off or to use vacation time.

“There are some generous policies out there for moms,” she says, “and that might include six to 12 weeks paid leave, but it is certainly not the majority.”

For the Vails, the opportunity for Charles to take paid leave after the birth of their newest child offers peace of mind at a time that can be fraught with anxiety.

Charles Vail, with his daughter Soleil, 3. – Dawn Ouellette Nixon

“It’s good to have that safety net,” Vail said. “If you are looking at the household as one unit, the mother and father, that time off is very important. You have to at least get into a rhythm, especially during the crucial first weeks, and that will allow you to be able to step away later.

“Adjusting to and caring for the new baby includes every member of the household, not just the mom,” he said.

The Vails believe that the time off after the baby is born is important not just for helping the mom out with the tasks of caring for the newborn, but for the dad to bond with the baby as well.

“Why is this just a woman’s responsibility?” Vail asked. “Mom’s got to heal, physically and mentally. And dad can help with that. It takes more than one to create a child.”

Creating loyalty

Merril Lynch’s generous parental leave policy benefits the company, too. It creates employee loyalty. According to some human resources professionals, a paid parental leave policies increase a company’s chances of hiring and keeping good employees.

“It sends the message that the company is invested in the employee and family,” says Scott Soloman, senior client executive at OneDigital Philadelphia, a Philadelphia-based human resources management firm. “That reinforces the idea that the company wants its workforce to succeed in all aspects of life, not just work. And when a company’s offerings are aligned with the needs of the employee, it increases engagement and loyalty.”

Merrill Lynch isn’t alone. Geisinger, a regional health care provider in Pennsylvania and New Jersey, recently implemented a two-week, paid parental leave benefit for its employees. This leave is open to all new female or male parents, whether by birth, adoption or fostering.

“Our employees have been asking us to consider this benefit for a few years,” says Brion Leiberman, vice president of human resources at Geisinger. “We took that feedback and used it. We listened.”

Offering paid leave makes Geisinger more attractive to new hires in today’s competitive labor market, Lieberman.

Brion Lieberman, vice president of human resources with Geisinger Health System – submitted

“Our demographic is in the prime age zone for having children,” he says. “The majority of our hires are between 22 and 40. And only 15 percent of companies today offer paid leave, so this is something that sets us apart. It absolutely gives us a leg up on the competition and increases company morale. Most importantly, it shows that we hear what our employees want and need and we respond.”

Since it was announced there has been an outpouring of positive responses from employees, he said. Many, including fathers, have already taken advantage of policy to bond with their newborn.

Labor law expert Bononno said companies that offer paid parental leave should follow Geisinger’s example and include men and women.  “If an employer is going to provide leave for women to bond with their newborn,” she said, “the same should be provided for men. Everyone should be treated equally.”

Of course, not every father or mother is fortunate enough to have paid parental leave. Some, like Keith Moser, a quality assurance officer for ULine, a Lehigh Valley-based shipping company, took a combination of paid time off and unpaid leave, secured through the Federal Family Leave Act, when his daughter Abigail was born 16 months ago.

For Moser, the time to bond with his child was invaluable.

Keith Moser with his daughter Abigail as an infant – submitted

“Time flies so fast,” he says. “These are precious moments and you miss a lot when you aren’t there. Society is sexist in that way, to say that a mom’s connection is more important than the dad’s. We are both parents equally.”

Keith Moser with his daughter, Abigail – submitted

Moser and his wife saved money to prepare for the unpaid time off, though he laments that a lot of other new parents can’t afford that.

“Federal paid leave would make sense,” he says. “It would bring families together and might even lower the divorce rate because of that increased family support.”

Moser finds it important to add that paid leave is not just good for employees and their families, but could also be good for the company’s bottom line.

“A happy employee is a productive employee,” he says.

And though Moser would support a federal paid parental leave mandate, he doesn’t believe this should be the only way paid leave is offered.

“It doesn’t need to be federally mandated if most company owners do the right thing,” he said.  “It just feels like the right thing to do. Supporting families is good for everyone.”